At least 200 are safe from the Creek Fire after rescue crews in military helicopters airlifted visitors out of Mammoth Pool in Sierra National Forest.
Dennis Drake, one of those rescued, remembers seeing the fire in the distance.
“It looked like, 50 miles away,” he told KMPH.
But the fire was moving fast, and before long it surrounded the national park visitors, concentrating them at the Mammoth Pool reservoir between Fresno and Madera counties.
“We were almost completely surrounded by fire. Almost 360 degrees,” Drake said.
By the time it reached the reservoir, the Creek Fire had already destroyed more than 73,000 acres of California wilderness and residential areas. For the few hundred who remained near Mammoth Pool, the outlook seemed grim.
“There’s fires on both sides of us, we have no protection,” Drake recalls.
The reservoir was low after a hot dry summer, but there was still enough water to keep people safe from the fire, for a short while at least.
“Everybody’s saying, get under the water, get under the water, get under the water,” Drake said. “We all did. We’re dunking every 10-15 seconds, just trying to survive.”
As the fire consumed the forest surrounding the reservoir and the black smoke grew thicker, hope was all but lost.
That’s when the faint sound of helicopter rotors could be heard over the roar of the blaze. Helicopters from the Air National Guard were mobilized to airlift the 200 park visitors to safety. In any other type of vehicle, the rescue just wouldn’t have worked.
“As you can imagine, the terrain up in that area is extremely rugged. A lot of trees, we don’t know where people are,” Colonel Dave Hall, Commander of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade told KMPH.
Using night-vision goggles, the colonel and his tea were able to find people and keep them away from the hottest points of the fire amidst the blanket of thick black smoke.
The Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters were taking up to 60 passengers at a time, moving them to safety, and coming back for more. They left no one behind.
“The weight of the world had been taken off our shoulders. Now we’re gonna be okay,” Drake said. “Every seat was taken. Every seat was taken.”
Col. Hall admits that the rides were a bit cramped, but the momentary discomfort was worth the risk.
“We do not like to operate that way, but because of the circumstances of this being an urgent situation threatening life, the pilots in command made the smart decision by loading them to get on the helicopter and loading as many as they could on that lift,” he said.
The victims were airlifted to ambulances waiting in Fresno. Drake and many others who were rescued that day cannot thank the Air National Guard enough.
“They deserve respect. Absolutely, each and every one is heroes,” Drake said. “Everyone I saw, I shook their hand, thanked them. Mainly because of the fact if it wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t have made it out.”
The thanks is well-deserved.
“It motivates you to keep coming out and doing this,” Col. Hall said. “There’s a lot of value and satisfaction the crew members get.”
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.