More than 200 people have been airlifted to safety after a fast-moving wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California.
The wildfires sent people fleeing as a brutal heatwave pushed temperatures into triple digits in many parts of the state.
The fire trapped campers Saturday at a reservoir in the Sierra National Forest.
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.
The wildfire burning near Shaver Lake exploded to 56sq miles (145sq km), jumped a river and compromised 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 (467km) north of Los Angeles, where temperatures in the city’s San Fernando Valley reached 117F degrees (47C).
Tune said the campers were told to shelter in place until fire crews, aided by water-dropping aircraft, could gain access to the site. Tune said he didn’t know how close the fire was burning to the campsite.
“All our resources are working to make that escape route nice and safe for them,” he said.
The lake is 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 gets going, it creates its own weather, adding wind to increase the spread,” Tune said.
The fire broke out Friday evening. Crews worked through the night, but by Saturday morning authorities issued evacuation orders for lakeside communities and urged people seeking relief from the Labor Day weekend heat to stay away from the popular lake.
“Adjust your Labor Day weekend plans. Access to Shaver Lake is completely closed to the public due to the #CreekFire,” the Fresno County sheriff’s office tweeted after announcing evacuation orders for campsites and communities by the lake.
Meanwhile in southern California, fire in the foothills of Yucaipa east of Los Angeles prompted evacuation orders for eastern portions of the city of 54,000 along with several communities, including Oak Glen, Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls.
And in eastern San Diego County, fire officials warned a fire near Alpine was burning at a “dangerous rate of speed” after spreading to 400 acres (0.6 square miles) within an hour. A small community south of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest was ordered to evacuate.
The fresh blazes come as the state, which has been dealing with weeks-long wildfires, faced record-high temperatures over the Labor Day weekend. The National Weather Service (NWS) of Los Angeles warned that temperatures in the region could reach up to 110F.
“This is a very dangerous situation. Heat can really creep up on you quickly,” said Eric Boldt, an NWS meteorologist in California, on Twitter.
Here we go, this is where it gets real. The heat really starts to ramp up today where there will be widespread triple digit heat away from the beaches. PLEASE take caution and stay inside with AC if you can! This heat can be DEADLY! #CAwx #LAheat #heatwave pic.twitter.com/GmbbWzckVy
— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) September 5, 2020
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 new wildfires since 15 August, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes. The blazes have burned more than 1.5m acres (2,343sq miles). There have been eight fire deaths and nearly 3,300 structures destroyed.
The heat wave was expected to spread triple-digit temperatures over much of California through Monday. Officials urged people to conserve electricity to ease the strain on the state’s power grid.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, warned customers Saturday 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 NWS is recommending that people stay inside where there is air conditioning during the hottest times of the day, but the pandemic has forced many places that offer the relief of air conditioning, including malls and public libraries, to close.
Cooling centers have opened around Los Angeles to provide the public with places to avoid the heat with social distancing requirements and capacity limits.
Temperatures in California have been rising over the last decade, with deadly consequences that many experts link to the global climate crisis. Air quality in the state is some of the worst in the country as heat leads to increased smog, which can damage lungs and increases respiratory and heart diseases. Heatwaves also lead to serious cases of dehydration, heatstroke and heart attacks, which can ultimately lead to death.
During an extreme heatwave last month, so many people cranked up their air conditioning to try to stay cool that the state agency that oversees much of the power grid turned off power for hundreds of thousands of customers.