Labor Day Getaway Instead Becomes Dogged Quest For Safety, Backpackers Recount

Sep 18, 2020


When James Sponsler and two close friends set out on a backpacking trip Friday night over Labor Day Weekend, they didn’t know the Creek Fire had started 30 miles away.

 

“Just about lunch time on Saturday was when we noticed the massive thunderhead,” says Sponsler. “Unbeknownst to us, this was the fire itself.”

The three have been hiking portions of the 214-mile-long John Muir Trail over the last four years, and this was the first time they’d hit the trail together all summer. Last year, they hiked through a downpour, so they were ready to push through what looked like more rain. 

They arrived at Rosemarie Meadow right on schedule Saturday night, and set up camp. Sunday morning they woke up to smoke.

“The best way to describe it is like fog, but it was smoke,” says Albert Yurgal, who was on the trail with Sponsler. “We never ever, ever saw fire, all we saw was smoke.”

Yurgal says that’s when he checked his satellite pager and saw that his wife was trying to reach him. “Without even reading it, I went, ‘Oh, s***.’”

He knew there was a serious problem. Her message? The forest was on fire.

Instead of taking two days to finish the hike as planned, the group covered 13 miles in one day, hoping they could get home before the fire got any worse. But by the time they made it to their cars, it was too late. There was a note on the windshield from a ranger saying the road out had closed at 4 o'clock.

Their cars were at Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison, so they decided to settle in. 

Other hikers and backpackers stranded by the blaze joined them. The resort was a rendezvous point, not in the path of the Creek Fire at the time, so they were safe. 

James Sponsler volunteered himself and his hiking friends to serve as kitchen crew while they and over 100 other hikers and backpackers waited to evacuate Vermillion Valley Resort.
Credit Courtesy of Albert Yurgal, James Sponsler

Riley Budd, the third member of Sponsler’s crew, says waiting for the helicopters wasn’t the most stressful part of being stranded at the resort.

“As soon as we got into VVR on Sunday night after that long day of hiking, several people were running around that campsite because a man had passed unconscious,” says Budd. 

Budd is CPR certified, so he went to help.   

“I was very focused in the moment, and wasn’t freaking out or anything while I was doing CPR, but right after, I was very overwhelmed.”

The man Budd tried to revive passed away. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office later identified him as David Sirk, 69, of West Sacramento. 

That evening, Sponsler, Yurgal and Budd  slept in a cabin at the resort, instead of a tent.

The following morning, Monday, the three filled in for the resort’s kitchen staff.  There was a skeleton crew working because of the fire.

For dinner, Sponsler and his friends went way beyond trail mix: they prepared tri tip, risotto, and roasted, pan-seared, bacon-garlic green beans. 

“We ate really good for being in an evacuation camp,” he laughs.

By dinner time, the group had also made a roster of everyone there and started mapping a route out, should they have to hike away from the fire to the eastern side of the Sierra. It would be a 20-plus-mile trek. 

Sponsler says having things to do kept him calm, but no hike was necessary. Tuesday morning, just after 3 a.m. the smoke cleared enough for helicopters to land at Lake Edison and bring them back to Fresno. Over 150 people were transported back to Fresno from the resort.

In retrospect, Sponsler says it felt right that they were there. 

“It’s appropriate that it happened the week of 9/11,” says Sponsler. “It kind of gave me that sense where people came together again, in a time where we're more fractured than we ever have been today.” 

Even with that optimism, though, Sponsler says he’s done with 2020. 

“I wrote in the ash on the back of my car, ‘2020 can suck it,’ and that’s exactly what it says,” he laughs.

Riley Budd agrees: “Here we all were trying to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and trying to get a little break from all of the stuff that’s been going on in 2020, only for the year to hit us once again with a solid uppercut.”

However, Albert Yurgal says, in a way, it was the best kind of adventure. 

“We never ever were in any danger, except when Wade [Sponsler] almost got bit by a rattlesnake, but that doesn't count.”

The three say they’re still planning to finish hiking the John Muir Trail: they have two more segments left. They say they’ll hike them as early as possible in 2021.