A heat wave over Labor Day weekend that fueled new wildfires across California has pushed the state to set a new record for the number of acres burned, as dramatic evacuations continue for one blaze called an “unprecedented disaster.”
“It’s a little unnerving because September and October are historically our worst months for fires,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told the Associated Press. “It’s usually hot, and the fuels really dry out. And we see more of our wind events.”
Tolmachoff said the new record is so striking because of how early it was set.
Two of the three largest fires in state history are burning in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than 14,000 firefighters are battling those fires and about two dozen others around California.
In the central part of the state, the explosive Creek Fire has grown to more than 135,000 acres in just three days after erupting over the weekend.
Cal Fire said the blaze remains 0% contained and continues to grow under “extreme fire conditions.”
At least 65 structures have been destroyed as evacuations remain in the area. Fresno County Sheriff’s Lt. Brandon Purcell told the Fresno Bee on Monday the fire was “an unprecedented disaster for Fresno County.”
Fire officials said Monday night that at least one death had been reported in the area due to the blaze, but officials later told FOX26 an elderly man collapsed due to a medical episode and was not related to the fire.
On Saturday, National Guard rescuers in two military helicopters airlifted 214 people to safety after flames trapped them in a wooded camping area near Mammoth Pool Reservoir. Two people were seriously injured and were among 12 hospitalized.
On Monday night, a military helicopter tried but failed to land near Lake Edison to rescue people trapped by the fire, the Fresno Fire Department said on Twitter. The department tweeted that “military pilots tried valiantly to land but heavy smoke conditions prevented a safe approach, another effort will be made shortly to evacuate the trapped people in Lake Edison and China Peak using night vision.”
Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of a Chinook helicopter, told the Associated Press visibility was poor and winds increasingly strong during the three flights he made into the fire zone during the operation that started late Saturday and stretched into Sunday. His crew relied on night-vision goggles to search for a landing spot near a boat launch where flames came within 50 feet of the aircraft.
The injured, along with women and children, took priority on the first airlift, which filled both helicopters to capacity, he said.
“We started getting information about how many people were out there, how many people to expect, and that number kept growing. So we knew that it was a dire situation,” Rosamond said.
The fire danger also is high in Southern California, where new fires were burning in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. The U.S. Forest Service on Monday decided to close all eight national forests in the region and to shutter campgrounds statewide.
“Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire,” Randy Moore, regional forester for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region that covers California, told the AP.
More than 14,000 firefighters are battling blazes at around two dozen wildfires around the state.
California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes in mid-August. There have been at least eight confirmed fire deaths and more than 3,300 structures destroyed.
One blaze was started by a gender-reveal party, officials revealed late Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.