Firefighters tried unsuccessfully to airlift some 50 people trapped by a blaze in California’s Sierra National Forest early overnight as wildfires continued to sweep the tinder-dry state.
Heavy smoke made it impossible for helicopters to land and remove the dozens trapped by the Creek Fire, the Fresno Fire Department said in a tweet late Monday. Another attempt to reach the people at Lake Edison and China Peak would launch once conditions improve, they said.
Fires have already burned through at least two dozen homes in the small mountain town of Big Creek, officials said. Fresno County Sheriff’s Office warned residents on Tuesday to be ready to evacuate as the red glow of the flames was seen from the towns of Tollhouse and Aubrey.
At least one death was reported during the blazes, according to Fresno Fire Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo, who did not release the cause during a press conference on Monday.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it was shutting off power in 22 counties in northern and central California as high winds forecasted through Wednesday increasing the risk of new fires being sparked.
Over the weekend, the fire caused three propane tanks totaling 11,000 gallons to explode, said Chris Donnelly, the longtime chief of the volunteer fire department in the nearby town of Huntington Lake. An elementary school also caught fire, although the extent of the damage was not clear.
The school’s superintendent, Toby Wait, told The Fresno Bee that a church, a library and a historic general store appear to have survived the fire, although Wait’s home burned after his family was evacuated early Saturday.
“Words cannot even begin to describe the devastation of this community,” he told the newspaper.
Video of the blaze taken by a paramedic from Fresno, Derek Ratzel, showed giant flames and a plume of smoke towering over Southern California Edison offices.
Donnelly said firefighters battling the blaze ran out of water Saturday night. Two plant employees who had been evacuated from Big Creek raced back into the flames to establish a new water supply and tie it into the hydrant system, Donnelly said.
“They went, ‘OK, we’ll do it for our town,'” he said, adding: “It’s a heroic story.”
The fire, which began Friday, exploded to a massive 78,790 acres by Monday afternoon in the Sierra Nevada mountains, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was zero percent contained.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said the fire was so intense that it had created its own thunderstorms with lightning and wind but no rain.
Over the weekend, more than 200 people staying at a campground in Sierra National Forest were evacuated by helicopter after the fire quickly surrounded them, making the only road out of the forest impassable.
A photo from the California National Guard showed dozens of evacuees crammed into a Chinook helicopter.
The blaze was one of dozens that firefighters were trying to extinguish as a record heat wave baked huge parts of the state over Labor Day weekend. Red flag warnings — the National Weather Service’s most serious fire alert — were in effect for much of California through Wednesday as powerful winds were expected to sweep across the state.
East of San Diego another blaze was growing in intensity early Tuesday. The Valley Fire has already consumed more than 17,000 acres and destroyed 36 structures since it was detected on Saturday, according to Cal Fire. It remains zero percent contained as it moves east toward the town of Corte Madera.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and alerts
A record 2 million acres have burned in California so far this year. Scientists have partly attributed the state’s increasingly intense wildfire seasons to climate change, which has made the season longer and hotter and its vegetation more combustible. They’ve also pointed to a chronic lack of managed and prescribed burns that have allowed those wildland fuels to mount.
California isn’t the only state struggling with fires.
In eastern Washington State, a wildfire tore through the small town of Malden on Monday, damaging as much as 80 percent of its homes and structures.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words. The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said in a statement late Monday.
County officials were expected to declare a state of emergency early Tuesday, Myers said, and local residents were being directed to the Red Cross for help with housing, food and other necessities.