Scorching temperatures fuel fires, threaten rolling blackouts around state
SHAVER LAKE, Calif. — Rescuers in military helicopters airlifted 207 people to safety after an explosive wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California’s Sierra National Forest, one of dozens of fires burning Sunday amid record-breaking temperatures that strained the state’s electrical grid and threatened power outages for millions.
The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues that began late Saturday and continued overnight. At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office said.
A photo tweeted by the California National Guard showed at least 20 evacuees crammed inside one helicopter, crouched on the floor clutching their belongings. In another photo taken on the ground from a helicopter cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.
Others made a white-knuckle drive to safety, Juliana Park recorded video of flames on both sides of her car as she and others fled down a mountain road.
“A backpacking trip cut short by unforeseen thunder, ash rain, and having to drive through literal fire to evacuate #SierraNationalForest in time,” Park tweeted. “Grateful to the SNF ranger who led us down … wish we got her name.”
The wildfire, named the Creek Fire, started Friday and by Saturday afternoon exploded in size, jumped the San Joaquin River and cut off the only road into the Mammoth Pool Campground, national forest spokesman Dan Tune said. At least 2,000 structures were threatened in the area about 290 miles north of Los Angeles.
The fire had charred more than 71 square miles of timber with no containment. Temperatures in the area topped 100 degrees.
Temperatures in the fire zone were in the 90s, but that was cool compared to many parts of the state. Downtown Los Angeles reached 111 degrees. and a record-shattering high of 121 degrees was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley.
It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, according to the National Weather Service. The mark rivaled the high in California’s Death Valley, typically the hottest place in the country.
Meanwhile, downtown San Francisco set a record for the day with a high of 100, smashing the previous mark by 5 degrees.
“By our calculations, over 99% of California’s population is under an Excessive Heat Warning or Heat Advisory today,” the weather service in Sacramento tweeted Sunday afternoon.
The exceptionally high temperatures were driving the highest power use of the year and transmission losses due to wildfires have cut into supplies. Eric Schmitt of the California Independent System Operator that manages the state’s power grid said up to 3 million customers could lose power for up to four hours Sunday evening.
Power usage was expected to peak at 6 p.m., and no significant outages had been reported by then. The city of Glendale near Los Angeles implemented a very small blackout that local authorities promised would last only an hour.
Pacific Gas & Electric PCG, +0.32% , the state’s largest utility, warned customers that it might cut power starting Tuesday because of expected high winds and heat that could create even greater fire danger. Some of the state’s largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by downed power lines and other utility equipment.
The Mammoth Pool Reservoir is about 35 miles northeast of Fresno. It’s surrounded by thick pine forests and is a popular destination for boating and fishing.
Bone-dry conditions and the hot weather fueled the flames once the fire started and it grew seven-fold to 55 square miles within a few hours Saturday afternoon.
“Once the fire gets going, it creates its own weather, adding wind to increase the spread,” Tune said.
Lindsey Abbott and her family were guided to safety by a stranger they followed down from their campsite near Whisky Falls.
“It was so hot, you could feel the flames going through the window,” she told ABC30 in Fresno.
Ashley Wagner was among those rescued, along with two relatives and a friend. They were trapped in Logan’s Meadow behind Wagner’s Store, a 63-year-old business run by her aunt that was destroyed.
“My family’s history just went up in flames,” Wagner told the station.
In Southern California, crews scrambled to douse several fires that popped up. The largest was a blaze in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles that prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several mountain communities. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said the fire scorched at least 4.2 square miles of brush and trees.
Bob Fonzi nervously watched the fire race across ridges near his remote home on a winding road.
“If that sweeps around, it comes into my back door,” he told KABC-TV on Saturday. “And the problem with that is there’s no easy access for fire personnel.”
The blaze was just 5% contained Sunday morning.
In eastern San Diego County, the Valley Fire broke out Saturday afternoon and fire officials warned the blaze was burning at a “dangerous rate of speed.” By Sunday morning it had destroyed at least 10 structures after burning 6.25 square miles and prompting evacuations near the remote community of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest. At least two of the lost structures were homes, ABC10 News in San Diego reported. There was no containment of the fire.
Cal Fire said nearly 12,500 firefighters were battling 22 major fires in the state. Despite the heat, firefighters were able to contain two major fires in coastal Monterey County.
California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. The blazes have burned more than 1.5 million acres (2,343 square miles). There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.