It should have been an idyllic Labor Day weekend, the serenity of the High Sierra region of California providing a welcome respite from protests and a pandemic.
But about 200 people — many of them unaware that a rapidly growing wildfire was closing in on a popular campground area in the Sierra National Forest — found themselves suddenly trapped while trying to flee Saturday night into Sunday morning.
The very forest where they had come for a holiday escape now provided kindling that helped create a firestorm, one that prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to declare a state of emergency.
It took a treacherous rescue operation by military helicopters to evacuate them from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir area, authorities said. Others posted videos on social media showing themselves escaping by driving through a labyrinth of fire and ash.
“We had to splash water on our hair because our hair was catching on fire,” Rylee Zukovsky said on Sunday. “I was shoveling so much water into my face that I was almost drowning myself.”
Dozens of evacuees were packed into the helicopters. Two UH-60 Black Hawks and a CH-47 Chinook transported them to Fresno Yosemite International Airport, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
About 20 people were injured, he said, and some were taken to hospitals. Two people remained in very serious condition from burns, Daniel Lynch, director of emergency medical services for Fresno County, said Sunday.
In neighboring Fresno County, evacuation efforts were also underway Sunday night, according to the sheriff’s office. It was not immediately clear how many people were affected by evacuation warnings there.
The blaze, known as the Creek fire, had consumed more than 45,000 acres and was 0% contained as of Sunday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. It was one of three significant fires in California cited by Newsom in an emergency declaration Sunday night in five counties.
In San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles, the El Dorado Fire had burned more than 7,000 acres and was 5% contained as of Sunday night, according to Cal Fire. The blaze was caused by a smoke generating pyrotechnic device used during a gender reveal party, in a park in the city of Yucaipa, the authorities said.