The wildfires currently consuming large swaths of California and turning the skies of the American West an apocalyptic orange are so bad that the state’s National Guard is out rescuing stranded people by the Chinook-full.
Campers in the Sierra National Forest, northwest of Fresno, over the Labor Day holiday were taken completely by surprise by the blaze, encircled by fire before anyone saw the flames racing over the mountains. It’s not unusual for the National Guard to be called in for search-and-rescue missions, but helicopter pilots involved in the rescues told the New York Times they’ve never seen a mission like this before:
In a scene that played out multiple times over the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon, the California National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians, their exits trapped by a dense ring of fire. Before the helicopter’s arrival, Mr. Crouch had waded into a lake up to his neck to escape the smoke and whipping embers, shivering in the cool water. “It was go underwater, come up, take a breath,” he recalled.
Two pilots who led that rescue, both military veterans, said it was the most harrowing flying they have done in their careers. Crew members became nauseated from the smoke. They flew up a valley in strong winds, surpassing ridgelines illuminated by fire. They contemplated turning back.
“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter, said in a briefing.
“I’ve been flying for 25 years,” he said, removing a cloth mask to speak. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” he said of the rescue missions in California.
These hardened military vets considered turning back! That alone shows you how intense the situation in California is. As of Thursday afternoon, the Guard had rescued nearly 400 people and at least 16 dogs, with some 200 of those airlifted from the Sierra National Forest. The Creek Fire remains 0 percent contained as of this writing and has spread to 175,893 acres, according to CAL FIRE. It’s one of seven wildfires less than 25 percent contained in the state.
California has been experiencing incredible heat and high winds this month, and it seems that as soon as one fire is under control another springs to life. While the trend has been toward fewer wildfires in recent years, the size and intensity of the fires that do break out has grown. In July 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire scorched 410,203 acres. The deadliest fire in state history broke out in November of 2018, killing 85 people and causing between $8.5 billion and $10.5 billion in damage, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
This year, the decline in wildfire numbers has reversed, with 41,051 wildfires breaking out in California, compared with 35,386 wildfires in the same period in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Fire season is far from over, this could well be yet a record-breaking year.