Creek Fire: Backpacking trip turns dangerous, friends recount terrifying evacuation from wildfire

Luz Pena Image
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Bay Area hikers recount terrifying escape from Sierra National Forest fire
A backpacking trip in the Sierra National Forest turned dangerous for a Bay Area group of friends who had to escape the Creek Fire burning in Fresno & Madera Counties. The hikers described their terrifying journey driving flame-filled roads.

SAN FRANCISCO -- More than 200 people had to be rescued Saturday after getting trapped near a lake because of the Creek Fire burning 73,378 acres in Fresno County.

A dramatic rescue using helicopters by the California National Guard lifted people to safety.

LATEST: Creek Fire grows to 78,790 acres with 0% containment, new evacuations issued for Fresno, Madera counties

For some Bay Area hikers, however, they had to drive their way out of danger and that meant passing through the burning forest to get to safety.

Luz Pena from our sister station KGO-TV spoke to a group of friends about their harrowing escape where minutes felt like hours.

"You could literally feel the heat inside the car," said Bana, the driver of the group.

Inside the car, five Bay Area friends on a backpacking trip telling each other they were going to survive.

"Fearful because I realized how close of a call it was," Juliana Park said.

"A bunch of fire...everything was lit. It was pretty scary," described Devin Villarosa.

It's surreal to think that an hour prior to their "close call" they were hiking in the Sierra National Forest searching for a water source to camp for the night.

"At the time when we were planning there were no fires in the region where we were going," said Lucy Wang.

Over an hour into their hike they heard thunder.

"We noticed that the thunderstorm got worse and then there were black ashes raining upon us. At this point we made the decision to head back," said Villarosa.

The hike down took two hours. When they arrived to their car they met a park ranger.

"She found us and told us there is a fire across the road. But we didn't know where to go," said Wang.

VIDEO: Explosive wildfires scorch Fresno and Madera County mountain communities

Dramatic videos show wildfires scorching the Central Valley.

"All my friends took the directions and wrote them down of where to take a right or a left. All I had to do was concentrate on the road and try to avoid anything," said Bana.

The ranger let them out to safety but warned them that what was ahead was dangerous.

"She gave us instructions as to what to do and told us to keep moving forward," said Villarosa.

They now wonder about the "what if's."

RELATED: Here's how you can help people impacted by massive Creek Fire

"10 minutes later from our plan it could have been different or if we decided not to turn back and we might have not come out uninjured," said Villarosa.

Their bond even stronger 24 hours later. They're hoping to find the park ranger someday and say "thank you."

"She saved our lives," said Park.

Another pair of backpackers, San Jose residents Erick and Caleb Levine, were backpacking in the Dinkey Creek wilderness this weekend.

On Saturday morning, they hiked up to a ridge and noticed smoke. Within an hour a giant plume cloud grew.

Later in the day, it started getting really dark. Ash began to fall and they decided they would pack up early and head out.

"As we were hiking out it got darker and darker until the sun was gone, the sky was a dark, dark grey. We almost had to bring out our headlights that's how dangerous it got," says Erick.

They said the scariest part was they didn't know how close they were to the fire or what direction it was headed as the ash began to fall more heavily, but they had no choice but to keep going straight to get back to their truck.

Finally, after getting to their vehicle and on their way down, they were escorted down to safety.

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