Under Orange Skies And Falling Ash, Backpackers Waited For Rescue From Creek Fire

A home is engulfed in flames during the Creek Fire in the Tollhouse area of unincorporated Fresno County early on September 8, 2020. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

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It's unclear what started the Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest on Friday, but it's already become one of the largest and most devastating wildfires of California's record setting fire season, driven in large part by climate change.

By Tuesday the fire had consumed more than 140,000 acres and moved so fast that it trapped hundreds of vacationers, locals and backpackers, many of whom had to be airlifted to safety.

Backpacker Adrienne Chenette was one of them, part of a group of 50-plus people trapped for days, without a way out, at Vermilion Valley Resort near Thomas Edison Lake, deep in the Sierra.

A TYPICAL TRIP TO MT. WHITNEY

Chenette and a friend, Kathryn Palmer, set off from Tuolumne Meadows on the John Muir Trail with plans to summit Mt. Whitney by Sept. 17.

They were on day seven of their trip, trekking towards a resupply, when off in the distance they saw a mass of smoke rising high above the mountains.

Smoke from the Creek Fire over Sierra National Forest. (Courtesy of Adrienne Chenette)

Concerned, they messaged with Palmer's mom to find out what was going on. They decided that the fire was of big enough concern that they should abandon their trip and turn back towards roads to hitch a ride and evacuate. But it was late in the day, so they decided to do it first thing in the morning.


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By 4 a.m. it was clear they had to get to safety.

"The smoke was so bad it woke me up and my nostrils were stinging and my eyes were stinging," Chenette said. "I just knew that I needed to get out of there in order to breathe."

Smoke from the Creek Fire inundates Sierra National Forest. (Courtesy of Adrienne Chenette)

Just functioning, much less hiking long distances in heavy smoke, is dangerous.

For Chenette, who has asthma, it had the potential to turn deadly.

"There was ash falling from the sky and it was hard to breathe just walking around packing up our campsite," she said. "And since the smoke was so thick, we could no longer tell how close it was, or how far it was, or how big it was, or anything."

They knew they had to get out of there. But Vermilion Valley was nine miles away, three of them uphill, so they knew it'd be a challenge, especially for Chenette.

The journey there was not only exhausting, but eerie, she said. They hooked up with other backpackers making their way out, but every time they came to a trail junction and expected to see U.S. Forest Service Employees or law enforcement guiding people to safety, there was no one.

It was hours before they reached the final, winding, uphill road to the resort. By then Chenette was having trouble breathing.

"The adrenaline just starts rushing through and it's just pure survival. I will do whatever I have to," she said.

"There was definitely a moment of panic, that I couldn't handle walking anymore. And I wasn't going to make it up the hill unless someone came and got us."

ALL TRAPPED TOGETHER

Fortunately, a woman evacuating with her family in a pickup truck saw Chenette struggling, turned around and gave her and Palmer a ride to Vermilion, where they sat in a cafe trying to catch their breath.

Seeing a caravan of cars heading away from the resort worried her. Without one herself, she was waiting for law enforcement to show up and offer some sort of solution. And eventually, they did.

"That brought some relief. They're finally here to get us. We're going to go," Chenette said.

But 30 minutes later, everything changed.

The fire had cut off their escape routes.

Backpackers, hikers and law enforcement waited for two days to be rescued at Vermilion Valley Resort. (Courtesy of Adrienne Chennette)

The officers, locals who'd shown up, and an estimated 50 backpackers were all trapped together at a resort in the middle of one of California's worst fires of the year.

This was the second time this year Chenette had to evacuate. The first was during the Walbridge Fire, which is still burning and forcing people to flee in Sonoma County.

WAITING FOR THE WORST

It became a multi-day waiting game.

The group found ways to pass the time, sharing cooking and cleaning duties, building community amid the chaos.

"We've been sheltering in place individually, largely, for months. And it was a really beautiful weekend of these people coming together and accepting that fact that we needed to end our hikes and just support each other. I felt nothing but support from everyone around me," Chenette said.

"Having to make the best of it, I think everyone really just stepped up."

All the while the fire grew closer and the smoke so thick that Chenette said she couldn't see the lake from 100 yards away.

They made plans to head to the middle of the water for safety if the world around them erupted in flames.

HELICOPTERS ARRIVE

After two long nights, at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a siren went off.

They ran outside and were told by law enforcement to get their stuff together. It was time to go.

A Black Hawk helicopter had spent all night trying to land, navigating towering columns of smoke and erratic weather, but had had to give up repeatedly.

Finally, it was able to touch down on the other side of the lake.

Chenette was among the first dozen people who crammed inside the deafeningly loud aircraft.

When it took off, the helicopter had to climb to 11,000 feet just to get over the wall of smoke.

"The sky went from dark and grey to just orange grey," she said. "We passed over the firem which was just massive. It just looked like it went on and on for miles. And I could feel the temperature shift from really cold mountain air to the heat of the fire."

A WAVE OF EXHAUSTION

It was only after they touched down at the airport in Fresno that for the first time in days Chenette finally felt safe.

A Black Hawk helicopter that arrived to save backpackers from the Creek Fire. (Courtesy of Adrienne Chenette)

The tension released from her body. She didn't have to run on adrenaline anymore.

Exhausted and shocked when we spoke, she was unclear what day it was.

Still, she and others cheered as a stream of helicopters touched down with more and more survivors.

When we last spoke, Chenette and Palmer were waiting to be picked up by Palmer's mom who was driving down from Sacramento.

Chenette's car is stuck at Tuolumne Meadows and she doesn't know if it'll be there when the fires finally pass. But when asked if she was concerned, she made clear she was more concerned about what others had already lost in the devastating blaze.

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