In the Sierra National Forest, visitors were trapped by the fast-moving Creek Fire. Almost 400 people were airlifted from the forest.
National Guard rescues campers from wildfire
Army National Guard Col. David Hall told NBC’s Today Show on 8 September: “We’ve made multiple attempts [over] the past couple of days trying to get to those remote camp sites. Weather and the smoke are co-operating with us better, and we’re going to keep working tirelessly … until we get out as many people as we can.
“There are definitely a lot of challenges floating out there. The biggest thing is this fire ended up escalating very rapidly.”
He said backpackers, campers and hikers needed to be taken out by helicopter because the fire could overrun paths to safety, or had done so already. The Creek Fire has forced evacuations in Madera and Fresno counties. The fire is an ‘unprecedented disaster’ for Fresno County, US Forest Service Supervisor Dean Gould said on 7 September, adding that while major wildfires have occurred in the area before, this fire is the ‘most aggressive of any of those’.
Task Force Rattlesnake Alpha supports CAL FIRE
As an important partner to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the National Guard is working on hand crews, providing ground communication capabilities to remote locations, real-time thermal imagery to incident commands and dropping water and retardant on fires. The National Guard’s Fresno-based Joint Task Force Rattlesnake Alpha team were activated in early September to support CAL FIRE. The task force, comprised of service members from California State and National Guard, was launched in April 2019. After a successful first year of the program, a new wave of trainees was hired last spring, completing their CAL FIRE training a mere two months prior. For new Rattlesnake crew members like US Army Spc. William Hortua Jr, that means they have been able to put their training to work almost immediately.
“We’re cutting line, we’re separating the fire from the live brush, we do a four-foot scrape to protect housing and prevent something from sparking it back up,” Hortua said.
The crew train with CAL FIRE, and upon completion, they work year-round clearing brush, performing controlled burns and other preventive measures. However, with fires raging throughout the state and over 1.8 million acres destroyed, their focus has shifted to aiding CAL FIRE with the containment of active wildfires.
Due to the rough terrain, over 50 Rattlesnake members were flown by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and dropped on the ridge, while a crew of nearly 15 drove to the remote site at the base of the canyon, ensuring transportation back at the end of their shift. The crew then hiked 3.5 miles up to the ridge to tie in with the rest of the team.
US Army Capt. Joseph Tabor, Officer in charge of the Rattlesnake hand crew team, added: “This is a very large fire, so we’ve been a contingency force and we’ve been sent out to the highest risk areas with the most fire activity to cut some hand lines directly against the fire line, basically prevent fires from impeding on some of the communities around here.”
Wildfires destroy 2.5 million acres in California
CAL FIRE operates 12 Super Hueys across the state and is the first port of call when it comes to containing wildfires in California. The daily CAL FIRE report on 9 September stated: “Wind conditions allowed many fires to grow significantly with extreme fire behavior. While containment on many of last month’s lightning fires grows closer, several new wildfires ignited and were fanned by strong gusty winds. Today approximately 14,000 firefighters are battling 28 major wildfires across California.”
There have been eight fatalities, over 3,700 structures destroyed and over 2.5 million acres burned, according to CAL FIRE. Thom Porter, Chief of CAL FIRE, told CNN on 9 September: "We have fires burning in the north part of the state all the way down to the Mexican border, about 800 miles between the furthest distant fires, so we're stretched across the landscape. We have 150 million trees that died in the southern Sierra several years ago, and those are fueling the Creek Fire, which is the biggest and most concerning fire to us right now.”