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Creek Fire forces hikers into 'Mordor' smoke and across Sierra, including a boy and dog

Fresno Bee logoFresno Bee 9/12/2020 By Carmen George and Jim Guy, The Fresno Bee

The Creek Fire – now one of the largest wildfires burning in California – had just ignited at the start of Labor Day weekend as many departed into the Sierra Nevada, expecting three days of mountain bliss.

Instead, unaware backpackers without cell service faced an exploding wildfire that has grown by thousands of acres daily in eastern Fresno and Madera counties since Friday night.

Some are still unaccounted for. Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti said he thought approximately 10 hikers still hadn’t been located, but weren’t officially considered missing as of Thursday afternoon. Hiker Heather Craig, reported missing by her father, is among them.

“Their families may or may not have heard from them,” Botti said. “So we keep in touch with them for updates and cross them off the list if they check in.”

The sheriff’s office is planning to deploy aircraft with thermal imaging to search for hikers, what might begin Friday, Botti said.

Of those who have made it safely home, here are six of their escape stories, including a caravan through flames and some young, brave adventurers forced to cross the Sierra Nevada for the first time.

1. Through Shaver Lake flames from China Peak

On Sunday – the day after a group surrounded by fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir was flown to safety – there were still many hikers in the mountains, including Pam Geisel Plemmons.

It was the sixth day of what had been a beautiful backpack trip into Evolution Valley. Smoke became visible Saturday, but didn’t seem like a big deal. By Sunday, it made the afternoon feel like midnight, Plemmons said.

She and a friend made it back to their cars at a trailhead above Huntington Lake. The roads were eerily empty as they drove down the mountain.

“The smoke is getting thicker and the sky is getting redder and redder. … Why isn’t anyone here and stopping us?” Plemmons asked herself.

They finally hit a road block at China Peak Mountain Resort and were instructed to wait in a parking lot with around 50 other cars and people. Some seemed to be partying. Not Plemmons.

“My legs were shaking I’m so scared,” she recalled. “You could see the fire was about three to five miles away, and it was just going to come over the ridge.”

She was told to sign her name on a sheet and wondered if it would be used to notify relatives of her death. She was told helicopters were coming for them – and then they weren’t. Fire and sheriff officials vowed to keep them safe as they waited for a break.

An opportunity surfaced that evening and they all convoyed down the mountain, escorted by fire trucks.

Sides of the road were aflame around the dam at Shaver Lake. Burning trees reminded her of firing rockets.

“The saddest part was seeing all the animals,” Plemmons said. “There were a lot of livestock on the road.”

Out of the fire zone, she stayed with her daughter in Fresno, then returned home to Chico – which now sits between the even-more-massive August and North Complex fires.

2. Cal Poly first-time backpacker forced to cross mountains

Maycee Ballew, 20, was on her first ever backpack trip with five friends and fellow Cal Poly students when she learned from a Forest Service ranger that a massive wildfire was blocking their exit out Highway 168. He advised them and a number of other hikers, 16 in all, to cross the mountain range to the Eastern Sierra, instead.

One route would add 25 miles, requiring an extra day of hiking, what Ballew and her friends didn’t have enough food for. They opted for a shortcut that would shave off 10 miles, but with a catch: Climbing 13,400-foot Mount Lamarck. As they left McClure Meadow for Bishop via the more strenuous route, Ballew wished one of her friends a happy 21st birthday as a 16-mile “death march” began.

“It wasn’t really even a trail, it was just a shortcut people had taken before,” Ballew said. “We knew we weren’t on the PCT or JMT. A lot of it was literally just bouldering, choose your own adventure. Just pick the rock that looks the most stable and go for it.”

Many tears were shed as the hikers reached the summit of Mount Lamarck and were able to call parents and wives.

“It was both pride and a little bit of panic,” Ballew said of her tears as she stood upon the mountain looking at a smoke-filled valley with many miles still to go.

Ballew and her friends had help from the ranger from McClure Meadow, who caught up with them up the trail, along with a group of men who were also, coincidentally, from San Luis Obispo. They “literally saved our lives,” Ballew said, by helping carry backpacks and being so “physically and emotionally strong” throughout the trek that took over 12 hours. Ballew wasn’t the only first-time backpacker on the journey.

As the sun set, headlamps illuminated raining ash as they descended into the Eastern Sierra hungry, thirsty and exhausted. The ranger had returned to his station after guiding them to the summit. It “felt very end of days” as they pushed through the final miles of their unexpected detour, finally taking them to a campground outside Bishop late Sunday night.

She called the trek “light-years different” in difficulty from the backpack trip she had originally planned.

Ballew had a satellite communicator, used by some backpackers where cell service is minimal or non-existent, that enabled her to keep in contact with her parents, Angela and Rob Ballew. They drove from Clovis to Bishop on Monday morning to get them, then drove the San Luis Obispo group back to the Central Coast – 750 miles in all.

Angela is very proud of her daughter.

“She blew all of us away who have backpacked,” she said of her youngest child, who bested her mother’s backpacking feats the first time out in summit elevation, miles walked in one push, and completing a trans-Sierra hike.

“What strength of character, what calm, what endurance,” Angela said. “She just amazed me. I’m so proud of her. She’s such a sweetheart and such a genuine, kind person, but on that trail she proved she was also really gutsy and really strong.”

3. Dropping into ‘Mordor’ darkness after failed fishing

As the sky grew darker and smokier Saturday afternoon, Brad Johnson feels embarrassed now to admit that he thought, “Let’s go fishing!”

“I had to use a headlight to tie the fly,” the 40-year-old said. It was 4 p.m. at Sadler Lake.

“The lake is covered in ash and the fly hit a scummy film of ash and immediately sunk,” Johnson said. “I did not catch any fish.”

The smoke didn’t feel like an imminent danger to the avid hiker at the time. Neither did the thunder he now knows was created by the massive Creek Fire. Not even when blackened chunks of wood started falling from the sky.

Johnson camped overnight and awoke to more ominous changes.

“I looked downslope and saw this black cloud. It looked like Mordor, it really did,” he said, referencing the evil wasteland from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I don’t know what’s down there, but I don’t want to go down there,” he thought. “Whatever it is is not good.”

But down he would go until he reached cell service along a rocky section of the Isberg Trail. He called the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and learned roads below were closed because of the fire. He also ran into a packer, Tracy Terzian, leading a group on mules who called his wife and the Forest Service for more information.

Johnson learned he could continue down to Beasore Meadows and drive out along bumpy, remote roads, which he did. That he’d make it out at all was unknown when he first started dropping into “Mordor.” In hindsight, he regrets not having hiked up into nearby Yosemite National Park instead.

Descending into the smoky darkness, Johnson said, “either we were going to make it out or we weren’t.”

The Berkeley man is a former wilderness guide who also used to work for the Sierra Club. But for all his experience, Johnson said he and other hikers on that trail had a hard time knowing what to do when confronted by monster fire. Johnson knew the recommendations for dealing with every other backcountry danger, but not this. It was the only time, aside from a former rock climbing expedition, when he thought he might die in the wilderness.

“There’s a lot to learn from these disasters about how to stay safe in the new West.”

4. Packer gets surprise help to save mules, horses

As Johnson made his way to a trailhead, Terzian returned to Minarets Pack Station at Miller Meadow in the Sierra National Forest. Terzian was leading an overnight pack trip at Cora Lake when things turned bad.

“The thunder was unbelievable,” he said of weather created by the fire. “It was like a summer storm without the rain.”

He and his group decided to come down the mountain because they didn’t have enough food to take longer routes out and were concerned about potential fire activity along another trail.

Upon arriving at the pack station clear of fire, he and a couple employees and family members went to work rounding up their stock, about 30 mules and horses. Many were waiting in the Miller Meadow near the station. Terzian’s wife, Mikki, let them loose the previous day when she had to evacuate.

Terzian then herded them down Minarets Road for a 12-mile ride to Chiquito Bridge, where a road block was in place. They all happily followed the mares.

“I was tickled to death,” he said of the cooperative mules, equally eager to get out of there.

When they reached Chiquito Bridge, a convoy of cowboys with horse trailers were there waiting, organized by Terzian’s son. One of them was a member of the family who owned Wagner’s Store at Mammoth Pool, which burned the previous night, he said.

“His wife and daughter were trapped back there at Wagner’s Store when it burned down and he’s there helping us,” Terzian said. “It was amazing.”

More than a dozen strangers showed up to help. Terzian knew just one person in the group of compassionate volunteers. He said he’s overwhelmed by the amount of support and cooperation.

“It’s amazing how when a crisis strikes, we all tend to work together.”

5. Boy and dog among others who crossed Sierra Nevada

Clay Steward’s High Sierra fishing trip with his friend Brent McNelis turned into a dogged slog to Bishop after the pair spotted a towering mushroom cloud that was the Creek Fire.

Steward and McNelis, both 42, abruptly found the megafire blocking their return to the Edison Lake area.

Instead, they found their only escape was an arduous, high altitude, 20-mile trek in the opposite direction.

They teamed with Greg and Vanessa Cooper of Clovis, their 6-year-old son Gregory and Diego, an 11-year-old Labrador mix, to arrive safely in Bishop on Monday, exhausted, hungry and walking gingerly on blistered feet.

Steward and McNelis were planning on fishing in Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park when word of the fire began to circulate Saturday among hikers.

Steward’s car was parked at the Florence Lake trailhead, and the pair just wanted to get to it and head down the hill. But at the John Muir trail, more disturbing details were swirling: Highway 168 was closed. More and more hikers were heading away.

Steward and McNelis opted to do the same when they crossed paths with the Coopers, who were abandoning plans to get back to their brand-new car, parked near the fire, and instead head for Piute Canyon and then to Bishop. Together, the newly formed group hiked about six miles before sleeping on the ground that night, too tired to set up camp. They trekked all the next day.

“Sunday night was the worst,” said Steward. “We’d hiked 18 miles. Ash was falling like snow. You couldn’t see the moon. It was just awful.”

Monday, they crossed 11,500-foot Piute Pass. Diego, the 11-year-old Lab mix, was struggling; the family carried him part way.

But 6-year-old Gregory “was an absolute trooper,” said Steward, as he scrambled up and down the trail.

They encountered other groups and families making their way east and met a man with a satellite texter, who helped by sending a message to Steward’s wife, Emily, directing her to Bishop.

There was no official greeting party when they finally reached the trailhead on the east side.

“It was just abandoned. No one there,” said Steward.

But the group ended up catching a ride to Bishop, where they met up with Emily at a rendezvous in a Bishop brewery. All returned to the Fresno area in Steward’s SUV.

Steward still has to get back to Florence Lake to recover his Subaru Outback. Sheriff’s deputies tell him the parking lot is a “complete mess,” and not to even think about returning before next week.

And call first to check.

6. Wildfire cuts Eastern Sierra adventure short for mountaineer

The air was “perfectly clear” when Taylor Stanton, a self-described “annoying leave-no-trace guy” with a passion for mountains, went to sleep Saturday when it was still light out, anticipating an early start the next day to summit a peak near Bishop.

The 30-year-old woke up earlier than expected in the middle of the night, coughing and sneezing. He turned on the light to find air that resembled “pea soup … just a wall of white smoke.”

He fortunately had a N95 mask in his pack because of the COVID-19 pandemic and put that on. He packed up his camp and started to hike the handful of miles back to his vehicle in the dark, not knowing where the fire was.

“Visibility was nil,” Stanton said. “It was a weird, slow-going slog.”

He reached the trailhead around 3 a.m. Sunday and drove to the Buttermilks, a popular bouldering destination, to try to see what was happening. It was a concerning sight when the sun rose. Everyone there quickly left, too.

Stanton said he visits Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra almost every weekend. In the immediate future, he’s planning to take a break from such regular visitation, hanging out at his home in the Bay Area more.

In the process, he’ll be missing one of his favorite places on Earth. A place that’s hard to see burn.

“It’s almost like watching the Notre Dame burn down, but for me worse because I see it as a place of mental health and detox and a home away from home,” Stanton said. “There is such a close personal connection to the place. It just feels like watching a sacred building burn down.”

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©2020 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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