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As wildfire intensity rises, so does the human toll of blazes

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Alex Tettamanti
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The view from Mammoth Pool Reservoir in California's Sierra Nevada as the Creek Fire closed in around it on September 5, 2020.

This story was produced for WNYC Studios radio show Science Friday. You can find the original post and audio piece here.

A Piece Of Paradise 

It was Labor Day 2020, and Mammoth Pool Reservoir, in California’s Sierra Nevada, was buzzing with campers. Karla Carcamo and her parents, siblings, cousins, and countless others, mostly from the Los Angeles area, have been coming here every Labor Day for 17 years. “Most of it is my family, and family that's invited family, and those family friends have invited friends of theirs,” she says. “I’m telling you, we have over 200 people.”

Alex Tettamanti and her husband Raul Reyes are also Labor Day regulars. Every year, they drive in from Las Vegas to meet up with an off-roading club made up of a few dozen families from across the West. They fill their weekend with jet-skiing, ATVing and hiking. “It’s beautiful,” says Tettamanti. “The smell of all the pine trees and stuff, and the trees are so big, it's really cool.”

The campground and reservoir are nestled at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the Central California foothills a few hours northeast of Fresno. The attraction is unfiltered Sierra Nevada: Sparkling blue water surrounded by a thick forest of stately ponderosa pines and black oaks. Plus, it’s isolated. There’s only one road in and out, which dead ends at the lake. “Being there, let me tell you, it's like a little piece of paradise,” says Carcamo.

 

That Friday passed like any other. Groups split up to go hiking, swimming and grilling, and Carcamo’s family prepared for their annual pupusa night later in the weekend.

 

By Saturday morning, however, the atmosphere had changed. “When I woke up, I did notice it was kind of cloudy,” says Reyes. “The sky was orange and there was ash, like big pieces of ash falling,” says Reyes’ friend Vicky Castro.

 

The smoke and ash they were seeing was coming from the 2020 Creek Fire, which had ignited just the night before. The blaze would become one of the largest in state history, but at that time it shouldn’t have been a worry: At breakfast, the U.S. Forest Service reported it as just a few hundred acres in size, and the nearest flames were still close to 10 miles away. The folks at the general store near the main campground weren’t concerned, and neither were the people fishing at the dam. 

But that didn’t keep Tettamanti from making a dark joke over her birthday mimosas. “I said, ‘if there’s anything here that you think is important, you'd better take pictures of it for insurance before you go on this hike,’” she says. “Looking back at it, I can't believe that came out of my mouth.”

 

The joke proved to be prophetic. Within a few hours, the fire would grow from just 600 acres to more than 45,000—an area just larger than Washington, D.C. It overtook the campground. Flames and fallen trees blocked the one road back to civilization, forcing campers to flee in the only direction they could: toward the relative safety of the lake.

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Credit U.S. Forest Service
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Smoke from the Creek Fire billows over nearby Huntington Lake in September 2020.

Fleeing From The Flames

That’s when the 9-1-1 calls came pouring in. The lake was only two miles from the campground, but the drive was agonizing: Hikers went missing, parents were temporarily separated from their children, and panicking drivers had to dodge fallen trees and encroaching flames. 

To many campers, including Reyes, that drive felt like an eternity. “When you're in a situation where you think your life's going to end, everything's going to just slow down completely,” he says.

Mercifully, low water levels at the lake meant people had space to park their vehicles on the sandy lakebed between the water’s edge and the trees. They had gotten there just in time: Shortly after most people arrived, the fire closed in, consuming everything down to the treeline. 

“That’s when it really felt like the true fire was coming through,” says Tettamanti. She and Reyes watched the flames approach from inside their Dodge pickup truck, where they were blasting the air conditioning to keep the smoke at bay. “You could feel and hear the wind whipping across the vehicle, you could hear and see the embers flying everywhere, hitting trucks and trailers...and just exploding,” she says.

[Above video: The flames close in on Mammoth Pool Reservoir, where hundreds of people have gathered awaiting rescue. Credit: Alex Tettamanti]

 

Vicky Castro and her family were among dozens of people who actually got into the water. Having waded up to their chests, they held up foam pads to fend off flying ashes and embers. Castro says her two kids and niece and nephew, all between 6 and 14 years old, were crying, petrified that they were about to die. “At that point I was like, ‘you know what, this is not where this ends, we're not done,’” she says.

After a few nail-biting hours at the lake, the thump-thump-thump of two military helicopters cut their way through the billowing smoke and whipping wind. It was the California Army National Guard. 

“Everybody basically started cheering, and they started saying ‘turn on all the lights so they know that we’re down here,’” says Castro. That included “car headlights, flashlights, cell phones, anything, and just everyone was just screaming, yelling, honking,” says Tettamanti.

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Credit Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond
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California Army National Guard helicopter comes to the rescue of the campers.

In a tense rescue operation that lasted into the early hours of the next morning, two choppers would airlift 242 people stranded at the lake—as well as 16 dogs—to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Later that month, then-President Trump would fly out to California to personally present the seven crew members with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the most prestigious award in the U.S. for aviation. There were heroes among the campers, too, people who had shuttled strangers to safety, and search parties that had raced back into the smoldering forest to rescue hikers.

Some campers would be hospitalized and even need surgery for burns and other injuries, but everyone survived that weekend. They had all outrun one of the fastest-moving wildfires in California’s history. 

“When I tell this story to people, I tell them it was like a movie, but in real life,” says Rolando Rosales, Castro’s husband.

 

The rescue effort at Mammoth Pool Reservoir was an outlier. The Creek Fire at the time was California’s fourth largest blaze on record, and fire officials can’t recall a wildfire-related rescue effort even close to that scale. Yet the incident still tracks with a frightening trend: As the intensity of wildfire season increases, so, too, does its social toll and the risk to human life.

 

“We’ve seen… the increase in fires and how that’s having a direct impact to the people of California,” says Jon Heggie, a firefighter, Public Information Officer, and Battalion Chief with CalFire, the state agency responsible for battling wildfires. He says those impacts include the loss of community and industry due to wildfires, as well as the disruptions brought about by evacuations. “It touches so many different areas, it’d be naïve to say that it doesn’t affect everyone in California to some extent,” he says.

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Credit Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond
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During a ceremony on September 14, 2020, then-President Donald Trump presented the Distinguished Flying Cross award to the seven National Guardsmen who flew the rescue mission to Mammoth Pool Reservoir.

Climate Change Means Wildfires In The West Are Evolving

 

CalFire estimates that fire season is now two and a half months longer than it was 50 years ago, and the sheer quantity of blazes is rising. What’s more, the annual acreage burned has hit a record four times in the last 15 years. Heggie says when he started fighting fires in the 1990s, a big blaze would be around 50,000 acres in size. “That would take two, maybe three weeks to get that kind of acreage consumption,” he says. “Now we’re doing it in a single 24-hour period.”

 

The Creek Fire burned close to 50,000 acres the day it reached Mammoth Pool. Over the next three months, it would consume a total of 380,000 acres before being declared fully contained on Christmas Eve.

 

The shift in wildfire intensity can be blamed on two main factors, according to Marc Meyer, a province ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. First, there’s too much fuel—trees and other living and dead material that can feed the flames—on the landscape. 

And then there’s climate change, which researcherswarn is driving wildfire seasons. “You take either one of those and they’re a pretty significant stressor on the system,” Meyer says. “But you put them together and they work almost synergistically to increase the scale, the intensity, the severity of wildfires that we’re seeing today.”

 

Climate change exacerbates extreme weather and likely contributed to a five-year drought last decade, which scorched areas across the West and went down as California’s hottest and driest on record

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Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
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KVPR
Julianne Stewart, a registered professional forester in the Central Sierra, stands on a piece of property in the community of Shaver Lake that escaped the worst of the Creek Fire.

Throughout much of the Sierra, fires burned pretty freely until a century ago, when we began suppressing them to protect development in the so-called 'wildland-urban interface.' According to Julianne Stewart, a forester in the Central Sierra, those forests had adapted to frequent burning from fires every five to 10 years. “There wasn't a lot of buildup of brush and understory,” she says. “So the fire was low-intensity, it crept around on the ground, and you got these very open forests that just kind of naturally maintained themselves.”

But after decades without regular fires, that overgrown landscape was primed for a megafire. And then the 2012-2016 drought left many trees with little water, which weakened their natural defenses to fend off pests. By late 2019, drought and bark beetles had together killed off more than 100 million trees throughout California’s forests. “That's just a huge amount of fuel on the landscape,” says Stewart.

 

The Health Costs Of Smoke And Flame

In the last 20 years, the costs of firefighting have risen steadily. Seven of the state’s 10 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015. And since 2017, wildfires have killed 180 people in California—more than three times the death tally from the previous two decades. “Anyone in California knows that wildfires ravage the state consistently. It is having a toll on fire personnel and the general public,” says Daniel Urias, a Battalion Chief with CalFire and the Fresno County Fire Department.

Understandably, a mental health crisis sparked by wildfires is emerging. A recent review of hundreds of research articles reveals higher rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among people affected by fires. Losing a home or community to fire can be traumatic, but being forced to evacuate and fearing for one’s life, or experiencing the feeling of a lack of support from the government, can also leave a lasting impact.

Urias says mental health issues are also apparent among firefighters, who are stepping into ever riskier situations. “We’ve noticed that with our employee support services being called upon more frequently by our employees,” he says. They’re “looking for more time off when they do get back… just so they can get back to a sense of normalcy.”

 

Then there’s the smoke from wildfires, which used to be a short-term threat for nearby communities but is now lasting longer and drifting across the country. A recent data investigation by NPR’s California Newsroom revealed that wildfires have quadrupled the number of hazardous smoky air days reported in some areas of the West compared to just 10 years ago

Exposure to the particulate matter in smoke has been associated with a host of health complications, including respiratory flare-ups and cardiovascular issues. Alison Saldanha, a data reporter on that investigation, says there’s a clear relationship between wildfires and hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases. “What we found was that California recorded 30,000 more hospitalizations in 2018, which was a particularly destructive fire year, compared to 2016, when there were less destructive fires,” she says.

Long-term or repeated exposure to particulate matter has also been associated with pregnancy complications and preterm birth, and emerging research suggests there may be a link with decreased cognitive function in adults. 

A Growing Challenge For Rescue Teams

There's also growing a concern that hikers and other people recreating in vulnerable wilderness areas are now more at risk of getting caught up in the path of wildfires, and that those situations could put search crews in danger, too.

 

The night the Creek Fire reached Mammoth Pool Reservoir, the helicopter rescue was nearly as harrowing for the crew members in the air as it was for the campers on the ground. “The visibility immediately dropped from clear when you’re on one side of the fire to almost zero when you’re on the inside of the fire,” says Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond of the California Army National Guard, who piloted the larger of the two helicopters. “For a moment I was like, ‘oh man, this is really bad.’”

 

Because of the smoky conditions, and the need to fill the choppers beyond capacity to get everyone out, Rosamond says that mission was precarious even when compared to flights he’s carried out while on active duty overseas. “I've done night air assaults into bad guy country, I've been shot at, all that,” he says, “but this was by far the most dangerous, most risky thing I've ever gotten myself into.”

 

Jack Haskel, a trail information manager with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, worries that these rescues are going to become more commonplace as fires become faster and more intense. In the last few years, Haskel says he’s observed a steady rise in calls from hikers seeing or smelling smoke and wondering what to do. Most of the time, he says, he advises them to get out immediately. “These megafires… are growing really fast,” he says. “I know how busy our public lands are, and I could absolutely see scenarios where hundreds of people are stuck.”

 

No single agency handles all the data on wildfire-related rescues in California. But according to Sergeant Jeff Andriese, a helicopter pilot with the California Highway Patrol (CHP), rescues are still so rare that it’s unclear if they’re becoming more common. Andriese’s agency handles search and rescue for CalFireSince, and since early 2017, he says his helicopter team in Central California has responded to about 10 wildfire-related calls. “We’ve had a couple of rescues of fire personnel,” he says. “But we’ve had multiple calls where we have assisted hikers up in the mountains who become lost, due to either the fires or the smoke itself or fire damage to the trails.”

 

Andriese says the CHP is equipped not only to respond to emergencies, but also to prevent them. For instance, one of the calls his team responded to was to a remote area of the Pacific Crest Trail. There was no phone or internet signal with which to warn hikers of a nearby fire, so CHP helicopters flew in and used their P.A. system to broadcast evacuation orders. The U.S. Forest Service’s closures of many of California’s forests earlier this fall served to prevent both wildfires and injuries, Andriese says. “It’s proactive on their part to be shutting down the forest to make sure there’s less numbers of people that are going to be affected, should the fire continue to spread or continue out of control,” he says.

 

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Credit Rolando Rosales
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Weeks after the flames subsided, Rolando Rosales returned to the area to survey the damage to his family's truck and trailer, which they had been forced to abandon on their way from the campground to the lake.

A year after the harrowing rescues at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, Karla Carcamo and the other survivors are doing variably well. Raul Reyes has recovered from the nightmares he suffered for weeks after the event, while Vicky Castro says her son still shakes at any mention of fire. Many who were injured have sued Madera County in a complicated lawsuit that argues county officials were negligent by not warning campers of the approaching fire.

For others, the weekend served as a wakeup call to be smarter in the wilderness. “I will go again. My kids say the same thing,” says survivor Rolando Rosales. “But we will be more careful now. We'll maybe plan an escape route or something.”

 

“We just don't mess around with fire no more,” says Alex Tettamanti. “If the sun is orange, I’m out of there. I don't care where I am, I don’t care if I’m in the city, I’m gone. I don't play no more.”

 

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.