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Campers Injured In Creek Fire Sue Madera County For Damages

Alex Tettamanti
Over Labor Day weekend 2020, hundreds of campers were forced to flee their campgrounds for the relatively safety of Mammoth Pool Reservoir, where they eventually had to be airlifted out by the California Army National Guard.

A year after the Creek Fire ignited in the Sierra Nevada, Madera County is facing a lawsuit related to injuries sustained by campers who became trapped by the fire in the backcountry. The 11 plaintiffs on the lawsuit suffered burns and other injuries while camping near Mammoth Pool Reservoir when the intense, fast-moving fire began. 

On Sept. 5, 2020, according to official estimates from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire exploded in size from 600 acres at 10 a.m. to 45,500 acres by 5 p.m. During that time, the fire consumed roughly 10 miles between the Big Creek area, where it ignited, and the reservoir,taking fire officials by surprise and trapping hundreds of campers at the water’s edge.


After emergency calls poured in from the campground, two helicopters deployed by the California Army National Guard airlifted 242 people and 16 dogs to safety. According to the agency, 21 of those people were immediately transported to the hospital with burns and other injuries. Many remained in the hospital for days to weeks. No one perished.


In a media statement later that weekend, fire officials would call the fire“aggressive, “unprecedented,” and “in a class by itself.”


The plaintiffs do not allege that Madera County was involved in starting the blaze. Instead, the complaint, which was filed in Madera County Superior Court in May, claims that county employees never warned the campers the fire was approaching even though it was within their power.


Earlier in the weekend, some campers had called 9-1-1 when they spotted the fire far off in the distance, long before it had come close enough to become an emergency. The lawsuit alleges that a dispatcher from Madera County played down the risk of the fire and agreed to call them back if the fire behavior changed.


“County officials at that time indicated that the fire was no issue and it would take approximately 4-5 days before it would reach Mammoth Pool Reservoir,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiffs…gave their phone number to the county official so they could be contacted in the event the position changed so they could immediately evacuate the premises.”


However, the campers allege that they never received a callback, which the lawsuit claims “was clearly negligence.” 


The lawyer representing the plaintiffs declined to comment on this story, and the lawyers representing the county never responded to multiple requests for comment. In a legal filing, however, the county claims it had no legal duty to follow up with the campers.


“While plaintiffs attempt to allege a ‘special relationship’ with the County, where the County took on the duty…of providing personal messages to Plaintiffs regarding the status of the Creek Fire, there is no basis in the law for such a duty,” according to a memorandum filed in support of the county in July. Even if the plaintiffs could establish a special relationship, the memorandum continues, the county would be immune from liability under the state’s Health and Safety Code.

The plaintiffs are requesting compensation for medical expenses, the loss of earnings and earning capacity, and for general damages related to a loss of psychological well-being.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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  • The true story of how 242 people—and 16 dogs—survived one of the fastest-moving, most intense wildfires in California history, as the Creek Fire closed in on their campground at Mammoth Pool Reservoir over Labor Day weekend 2020.