200 airlifted to safety as California wildfires rage

200 airlifted to safety as California wildfires rage
Monitoring wildfires in Shaver Lake, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Rescuers in military helicopters airlifted 207 people to safety over the weekend after an explosive wildfire trapped them in a popular camping area in California’s Sierra National Forest.

The blaze is one of dozens of fires burning amid record-breaking temperatures that strained the state’s electrical grid and threatened power outages for millions.

The California Office of Emergency Services said Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters were used for the rescues that began late on Saturday and continued into Sunday at Mammoth Pool Reservoir.

At least two people were severely injured and 10 more suffered moderate injuries. Two campers refused rescue and stayed behind, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office said, and there was no immediate word on their fates.

A photo tweeted by the California National Guard showed more than 20 evacuees packed tightly inside one helicopter, some crouched on the floor clutching their belongings. In another photo taken on the ground from a helicopter cockpit, the densely wooded hills surrounding the aircraft were in flames.

The blaze dubbed the Creek Fire has charred more than 71 square miles of timber, and the 800 firefighters on the scene had yet to get any containment after two days of work on steep terrain in sweltering heat.

Other blazes broke out in Southern California and forced evacuations in San Diego and San Bernardino counties. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said the latter blaze, called the El Dorado Fire, started on Saturday morning and was caused by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender-reveal party.

The Creek Fire churned southward from the reservoir through miles of dense forest and by Sunday afternoon threatened a marina and cabins along Shaver Lake.

A firefighter tackles the Creek Fire in Big Creek, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

A business owner, who declined to give his name, looks up at the smoke-covered sky from the Creek Fire in Shaver Lake, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

California has seen sweltering temperatures, with central Los Angeles reaching 44C, while a record-shattering high of 49.4C was recorded in the nearby Woodland Hills area of the San Fernando Valley.

It was the highest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County, according to the National Weather Service. The mark rivalled the high in California’s Death Valley, typically the hottest place in the country.

Meanwhile, central San Francisco set a record for the day with a high of 37.7C, smashing the previous mark by five degrees.

“By our calculations, over 99% of California’s population is under an Excessive Heat Warning or Heat Advisory today,” the weather service in Sacramento said.

The exceptionally hot temperatures were driving the highest power use of the year, and transmission losses because of the wildfires have cut into supplies. Eric Schmitt of the California Independent System Operator that manages the state’s power grid said up to 3 million customers faced power outages if residents did not curtail their electricity usage.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility company, warned customers that it might cut power from Tuesday because of expected high winds and heat that could create even greater fire danger. Some of the state’s largest and deadliest fires in recent years have been sparked by downed power lines and other utility equipment.

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