Creek Fire: Helicopter crews save evacuees, evacuee thanks them for saving lives

October 1, 2020
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More than 200 people are now safe after being rescued from by military helicopters from the Creek Fire Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

They had been in the area known as Mammoth Pool in the Sierra National Forest, along the Fresno/Madera County line.

Dennis Drake of Lake Elsinore, was among them.

“How do you describe beauty?” he said, when asked to describe Mammoth Pool.

He was spending Labor Day weekend with his brother, and his brother’s family, when they noticed smoke in the distance.

Far distance.

“We got into our side-by-side and went for a look,” he says. “It looked like, 50 miles away.”

But in a matter of hours…

“We were almost completely surrounded by fire. Almost 360 degrees,” Drake says.

The Creek Fire covered 2,000 acres Saturday morning.

It ballooned to more than 73-thousand acres by Sunday night.

Drake and his brother’s family tried to drive out of harm’s way– but didn’t get far.

“There’s fires on both sides of us, we have no protection,” he says.

Everyone in the area scrambled.

The reservoir, became their haven.

“The reservoir at that point was about 40 feet down below full capacity. We know we have gravel, rocky area that’s not gonna burn,” Drake said. “Everybody’s saying, get under the water, get under the water, get under the water. We all did…

“We’re dunking every 10-15 seconds, just trying to survive.”

The flames were intense.

The smoke was thick.

The search– impossible for most.

But not for Army National Guard helicopters.

“As you can imagine, the terrain up in that area is extremely rugged. A lot of trees, we don’t know where people are,” said Colonel Dave Hall, Commander of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Hall says technology on board the helicopters was crucial.

“It’s a lot easier for us to see the heat sources and the fire, sort of see through the smoke at nighttime with the night-vision goggles,” Hall said.

He said some of the crew on board recently returned from military deployments overseas.

But this mission on home turf, provided hope.

“The weight of the world had been taken off our shoulders. Now we’re gonna be okay,” Drake said. “Every seat was taken. Every seat was taken.”

Hall says a Chinook Helicopter and a Black Hawk Helicopter made three trips each– sometimes carrying up to 60 people, to capacity.

“It was pretty cramped tight in there. We do not like to operate that way, but because of the circumstances of this being an urgent situation threatening life, the pilots in command made the smart decision by loading them to get on the helicopter and loading as many as they could on that lift,” Hall said.

They arrived to ambulance crews standing by in Fresno.

Crews from the Air National Guard, ready to help.

“They deserve respect. Absolutely, each and every one is heroes,” Drake said. “Everyone I saw, I shook their hand, thanked them. Mainly because of the fact if it wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t have made it out.”

Hall said crews appreciate the kindness — and gratitude.

“It motivates you to keep coming out and doing this. There’s a lot of value and satisfaction the crew members get,” he says.

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