Sep. 8--An "unprecedented disaster" continued to unfold Tuesday in Fresno and Madera counties as the Creek Fire consumed more than 143,000 acres, prompted a new round of helicopter-driven evacuations and destroyed dozens of homes and other structures including an iconic Shaver Lake landmark.
Containment remained stuck at 0% as of a late Tuesday morning update. Already, since the Creek Fire broke out Friday evening, 60 single residences, two commercial structures and 20 other minor buildings were reported to have been lost, according to Cal Fire.
Among the destroyed businesses: Cressman's General Store along Highway 168 in Shaver Lake. It had burned, along with both sides of the road at the top of the four-lane below the town. The area was unscathed Monday afternoon but did not survive the night.
The business, established in 1904, was a popular way station for tourists and day-trippers, who would stock up on food and gas up their cars, trucks, SUVs and recreational vehicles before heading to the High Sierra.
As the sun tried to break through heavy smoke that enveloped a multitude of other endangered Fresno and Madera counties mountain communities, a firefighting force now numbering 1,060 personnel prepared to step up a two-pronged attack on the blaze.
Sierra National Forest spokesman Dean Gould was among those who took part in the first full news conference since the fire began, describing it Monday night as "in a class by itself."
Recalling the names of prior large fires in the region -- including the Aspen, French, Rough, Railroad and Ferguson -- he said the Creek is perhaps the most aggressive of any of those.
"Over the past number of years we certainly had our share of challenges on this forest haven't we?" Gould said at the news conference, held virtually at Sierra High School in Tollhouse amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but broadcast by Fresno-area TV stations and on the Sierra National Forest Facebook page.
"All those incidents were remarkable in their own right," Gould said. "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."
Separately, one death in the fire area 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.
Cal Fire incident commander Nick Truax talked of "pretty heavy structure loss" -- including homes belonging to those fighting the fire -- during the presentation by local, state and national emergency responders.
Fresno County Sheriff's Lt. Brandon Purcell called it "an unprecedented disaster for Fresno County."
Focus on halting fire, completing evacuations
Officials said their primary focus remained on trying to halt the fire's spread and evacuating people, with complete damage assessment and efforts to allow people to get back to their homes and businesses to come later.
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, Purcell said.
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.
U.S. Navy and California Army National Guard helicopters brought out about 100 other people overnight and brought them to Fresno, officials reported.
Five flights had taken place Tuesday, according to Maj. Jason Sweeney, a spokesman for the California National Guard. More were planned.
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 busy; people coming together
Helicopters are being used to ferry people out but have had a difficult time landing in some cases due to smoke. 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 were safe and with deputies, waiting for the conditions needed for helicopters to land or to give vehicles the OK to drive down the mountain with an escort.
The wildfire remains active around Shaver and Huntington lakes and evacuation orders are expected to remain in place for an extended period. Bass Lake evacuation orders were prepared Monday, and more orders are expected in the coming days.
Officials stressed the importance of preparing to evacuate, even if only an evacuation warning is given, and to take orders seriously and leave. Warnings indicate a potential threat to life and property; orders indicate an immediate threat.
"One of the things when we do the orders we need them out and need them out immediately," Purcell
said. "This mountain community is very important to us here in the sheriff's office. We've had a great partnership with them for a long time.
"It's great how they came together and helped each other in these times in evacuations and we hope that can continue."
The fire has grown so large that it will now be managed by two Type 1 incident management teams, which while not unprecedented is unusual.
Two fronts will be set up on either side of the San Joaquin River, Truax, the Cal Fire commander said, at the Monday night briefing.
"This incident is massive in nature," Truax said. "Starting (Tuesday), going forward, we'll have two Type 1 incident management teams managing that to make sure that all of the communities in both counties, their needs are taken care of."
The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for much of the state through Wednesday due to strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures, with the Creek Fire one of 25 major wildfires already burning across California.
Gould tried to strike an optimistic note, recalling prior firefighting successes
"I have no doubt just as in those past (major fires)," Gould said, "we're going to get through this together as well."
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