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Creek Fire becomes ‘unprecedented disaster’ as it grows to 135,500 acres

by Carmen George and Larry Valenzuela, Fresno Bee |

An “unprecedented disaster” is unfolding in east-central California's Fresno County, officials said Monday night, as the 3-day-old Creek Fire grew to more than 135,500 acres.

There is still no containment, a combined gathering of local, state and federal officials said during a news conference, at which a grim though still general assessment of heavy structural damage was reported.

Dozens of homes and other buildings appear to have been destroyed.

Separately, one death was confirmed, Fresno Fire Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo said later Monday night. But a subsequent report by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said it had no connection to the Creek Fire.

There was no doubt, however, that firefighters were dealing with a dangerous wildfire.

Sierra National Forest spokesman Dean Gould named several former large fires in the region — including the Aspen, French, Rough, Railroad and Ferguson — before saying the Creek Fire is perhaps the most aggressive of any of those, “in a class by itself.”

“Over the past number of years we certainly had our share of challenges on this forest haven’t we?” Gould said. “All those incidents were remarkable in their own right. The Creek Fire is certainly starting out to be the most aggressive of any of those. This one is in a class by itself. At least it has been the last couple of days.”

Cal Fire incident commander Nick Truax said there’s also been “pretty heavy structure loss” — including homes belonging to those fighting the fire. Total acreage burned was 135,523 as of 6 p.m. Monday.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Lt. Brandon Purcell called it “an unprecedented disaster for Fresno County.”

Sixty-five structures were listed as destroyed in an update provided late Monday night by Cal Fire.

While cautioning the information will “remain fluid” as damage inspectors survey the area, the breakdown included 45 single residences and 20 other “minor structures.”

Officials said their primary focus remained on trying to halt the fire’s spread and evacuating people. Sheriff’s patrols are continuing in an effort to protect homes from any possible looters, even in some cases if that means deputies are near active fire scenes.

Evacuation warnings came too late for some residents as well as hikers and others who were taking advantage of remote but often highly popular Sierra Nevada recreational destinations as the Labor Day holiday weekend began.

The fire broke out Friday night and quickly expanded, cutting off exit routes.

One group got stuck Monday and was forced to wait at a Shaver Lake boat launch for hours before being escorted out. It included people who abruptly had to end camping plans, emergency personnel and media members.

Officials tried to calm worried family members of those caught behind the fire lines, saying most were able to move to designated refuge areas, out of immediate danger, until a safe evacuation could take place.

Helicopters are being used for rescues but have had a difficult time landing in some cases due to smoke; those efforts would continue. An exact figure on how many people may still be in the backcountry and in need of evacuation, or the number of fire-related injuries, was not available.

Tony Botti, the Fresno County Sheriff’s spokesman, said Monday night that there might be around 200 people still in the High Sierra, at Edison, Shaver and Sierra Marina. Botti said they are safe and with deputies, waiting for when it is safe for helicopters to land or to drive down the mountain with an escort.

The wildfire remains active around Shaver and Huntington lakes and evacuation orders for those areas – including Big Creek and other High Sierra locations – are expected to remain for a “long time.” More orders are expected in the coming days.

There is a red flag weather warning for the Creek Fire, Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Mike Wink said, which was to remain in effect until 11 p.m. Tuesday due to strong, warm winds, which have firefighters concerned. More normal weather patterns are expected after that time.