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A look back at the 2020 Creek Fire and a harrowing escape

Kerry Klein Apr 4, 2024
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Years after the 2020 Creek Fire, parts of the Sierra National Forest remain denuded and bare, like this section being surveyed and restored by workers with the U.S. Forest Service in August of 2023. Kerry Klein/KVPR

A look back at the 2020 Creek Fire and a harrowing escape

Kerry Klein Apr 4, 2024
Heard on:
Years after the 2020 Creek Fire, parts of the Sierra National Forest remain denuded and bare, like this section being surveyed and restored by workers with the U.S. Forest Service in August of 2023. Kerry Klein/KVPR
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When the Creek Fire ignited in September of 2020 in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside of Fresno, California, it engulfed 36,000 acres in just a day. It was immediately national news.

In that wild first day, the fire trapped hundreds of people at a campground. All of them survived, some with stories of incredible heroism and others with narrow escapes.

Liz Lawrence’s story involves a car crash. She was speeding away from the fire with her two daughters, who were nine and 11, when she careened her Chevy Yukon into a gate. 

“I remember the windows shattering on me and then it was just instant heat,” she said. “We were completely, except for the passenger side, completely surrounded by flames.”

Two of their doors were pinned shut. They managed to scramble out and flee on foot, the fire singeing their arms and faces. But they made it to safety at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, a nearby lake, where they and nearly 250 other campers were eventually rescued by helicopters with the California Army National Guard. The pilots and crew made six trips through thick smoke, late at night, to carry everyone to safety.

Three years later, Lawrence is still amazed.

“Why did we survive that? Why did we make it out of there? There’s no reason we should have survived that crash,” she said.

The Creek Fire was one of a staggering number of huge and destructive megafires to have ravaged California and the West in the last decade. It burned for more than three months, laying bare nearly 380,000 acres and destroying more than 900 structures. News reports eventually pegged the costs of the fire at more than $500 million, for fire suppression and response efforts as well as those dramatic, late-night rescue flights.

The survivors of the Creek Fire that first weekend have all followed their own paths to recovery. Lawrence and her daughters have been aided by counseling and journaling. They also adopted a therapy dog.

For others, part of healing has come from reuniting with their rescuers.

On the third anniversary of that dramatic night, the Army Aviation Association of America held a barbecue in Fresno to honor the National Guard soldiers who flew those helicopters.

Around 70 survivors showed up to thank them, including Karla Carcamo, who drove three hours from Los Angeles.

During the fire, she escaped the flames to the safety of the lake, but for hours she and her family lost track of her younger brother, sister and cousins, who were hiking in the woods. Mercifully, they all survived, but with severe burns. 

Carcamo said she’s still haunted by the trauma of those uncertain hours.

“Maybe like two weeks ago, I just cried on the way to work,” she said.

Nury Zeledon, also from L.A., was airlifted out with her husband and baby girl, who’s now four. Zeledon says her daughter doesn’t remember the fire, but they’ve told her the story.

“I showed her videos and she was just surprised. She couldn’t believe it. She’s like, ‘wow.’ And she said she wants to say thank you to the pilots,” she said.

Raul Reyes drove six hours from Las Vegas to meet his rescuers, because survival wasn’t just about him and his wife. After the blaze, about a year and a half ago, they had a baby girl. 

“It’s amazing,” he said. “That’s another blessing in itself.”

In the years since the Creek Fire, Reyes’ family and their friends decided to move their big camping trips to places where they felt safer: near the ocean, away from dense forests. But they may be ready to go back to Mammoth Pool this fall. 

Liz Lawrence, the woman who fled on foot with her daughters, also hopes to bring her family back to the lake later this year.

A tattoo of three elephants on a woman's forearm.
Lawrence’s depiction of herself and her two daughters. (Kerry Klein/KVPR)

On a sunny afternoon, she sat in a prayer garden near the Fresno church where she teaches preschool. She likes to take her lunch breaks here, and sometimes reflects on the fire. She thinks the episode actually brought her and her daughters closer together.

People like to tell her she and her daughters understand each other in a special way, she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, we’ve kind of been through some scary stuff, guys,’” she added, laughing.

She now wears that mother-daughter bond on her arm, where she has a tattoo of three elephants. The biggest is leading the smaller ones, guiding them wherever life takes them next.

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