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Newsletter: Essential California: A perma-state of emergency

The view from Saul Gonzalez' boat of the Creek fire surrounding Mammoth Pool Reservoir
The view from Saul Gonzalez’s boat of the Creek fire surrounding Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest on Saturday night.
(Saul Gonzalez)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Sept. 8, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Mammoth Pool Reservoir usually looks like something out of a storybook. Think ponderosa pines, cedars and a big, blue body of water, tucked in a steep, narrow valley high in the Sierra National Forest. The popular recreation area is bucolic and remote — the kind of place that‘s briefly shut down every year in late spring to allow migrating deer to swim across the reservoir.

But it became the setting of a nightmare on Saturday afternoon, when the fast-moving Creek fire blocked the only route out and trapped hundreds of vacationers.

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Driving up into the Sierra with his wrestling buddies for their annual Labor Day camping trip, Saul Gonzalez had first noticed a fire in the distance around noon on Saturday. The 38-year-old high school athletic equipment manager asked a ranger about it as they approached the reservoir and was assured it was nothing to worry about.

Up at Mammoth Pool, ATVs and jet skis zipped around, and everyone “was having a good old Saturday,” Gonzalez said. He and his friends got their 16-foot pontoon boat out on the water and headed toward their remote campsite.

By 3:30 p.m., they could see the dark orange glow of fire on the mountain ridges. Then they started seeing some of that fire coming over the mountain, toward where they were. By 4:30 p.m., they were packing up camp and heading back toward the dock. “Everywhere was just torched,” he said, describing what he saw on that 45-minute boat ride back. “Left to right, north to south. All the mountains.”

By the time they arrived back at the boat launch, there was a mass of people there, stranded and trying to figure out what to do. Gonzalez soon discovered that the fire had torn through the overflow parking lot where he’d left his 2012 Toyota Tacoma, torching the truck.

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“So then it’s like, how do we get out?” he recalled thinking.

As the blaze burned unchecked, authorities quickly realized there was only one way safely to evacuate the desperate campers and hikers stranded at Mammoth Pool: a giant airlift effort, undertaken at night amid perilous fire and smoke conditions. What followed, as my colleague Alex Wigglesworth reports, was “a massive multi-agency rescue that some officials described as unprecedented in size and scope.”

[Read the story: “As fire ‘engulfed everything’ around campers, an air rescue like no other in the Sierra” in the Los Angeles Times]

Using a small clearing alongside a boat launch road as an emergency landing zone, the first National Guard helicopters landed at Mammoth Pool about 8:20 p.m. Col. Dave Hall, who flew the mission, told Alex that the seven crew members were greeted by more than 200 campers, many of them clustered on a dock near the boat launch.

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The two people with life-threatening injuries were loaded onto the Chinook and the Black Hawk first, followed by the 19 “walking wounded” who would need hospital care but were not considered critical. Officials told Alex that children and those with underlying health conditions were also prioritized.

Gonzalez rode on the last helicopter out. He described the terror of ascending into the smoke with about 30 other people. “You could see the look on their faces,” he said. “They were scared.” Across from him, a father cradled his two teary-eyed teenage sons in his arms.

By 3 a.m. Sunday, the mission was complete. Over the course of three trips, 214 people and 11 pets had been airlifted to safety.

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Later that day, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in five California counties due to the fires, referencing the Creek fire in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa, the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino County and the Valley fire in San Diego County. This is at least the fifth emergency proclamation Newsom has issued since early March.

As of Monday night, the Creek fire had burned 135,523 acres acres and was 0% contained. It has also taken a devastating toll on Big Creek, a small town high in the Sierra.

Firefighting efforts over the holiday weekend were complicated by a record-breaking heatwave that blanketed much of the state, peaking on Sunday.

Sunday was “one of the hottest days since official weather records began across much of Southwestern California,” according to the National Weather Service. In the Woodland Hills neighborhood of the western San Fernando Valley, the mercury topped out at 121 degrees — the hottest temperature ever recorded at an official NWS station in Los Angeles County.

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[Read the story: “Sunday was one of the hottest days ever recorded in Southern California. A tally of historic heat” in the Los Angeles Times]

On Monday, the National Forest Service said it was temporarily closing eight national forests across the state beginning at 5 p.m. because of the extreme heat and dangerous fire conditions. The unprecedented closure, which included all the national forests in Southern California, shuts all trails, campgrounds, roads and other developed sites in the forests.

Tuesday should bring some relief from the heat but not the fire danger. According to the National Weather Service, the L.A. area’s first Santa Ana wind event of the season is expected to begin on Tuesday afternoon, with the winds peaking late Tuesday night through Wednesday afternoon. Fire danger will remain elevated through Thursday, with “widespread critical fire weather conditions across Ventura and Los Angeles counties” during the winds, according to the NWS.

More on the fires:

  • A pyrotechnic device at a gender-reveal party sparked the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino County. This isn’t the first time a gender-reveal party has sparked a major fire in the U.S. Los Angeles Times
  • The Bobcat fire in Angeles National Forest Angeles National Forest kept growing Monday, sending ash far and wide. Officials are concerned about foothill areas to the south, including Monrovia, Arcadia, Bradbury, Sierra Madre and Duarte, when Tuesday’s Santa Ana winds begin. Residents of those areas should prepare for possible evacuation. Los Angeles Times
  • Rolling blackouts are averted, but preventive blackouts return. PG&E announced the first public safety power shut-offs of the season Monday evening, saying roughly 172,000 customers in 22 Northern and Central California counties could be affected. (You can look up your estimated shut-off and restoration times for specific addresses here.) ABC 7

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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High-speed rail plan faces financial crunch as costs climb and funding sinks. It was just last year that Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would need to downsize California’s ambitious bullet train project, because the state could afford only a limited system from Merced to Bakersfield. But even the viability of that scaled-down $20.4-billion plan is becoming uncertain as construction costs rise in the San Joaquin Valley, expected revenues are under pressure and land acquisition problems mount. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

For L.A. Latinos, Whittier Boulevard is still a crossroads of change and hope. The 14-mile thoroughfare has served as a hub of Latino life, commerce and culture for decades. Los Angeles Times

The sun sets on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.
The sun sets on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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Meet the new babka king of Los Angeles. He doesn’t just sell the pastries, he also teaches babka-making classes over Zoom. Los Angeles Times

“Cugurt dared to have Reseda energy right in the middle of Los Feliz.” Twitter mourns the loss of an oddly named Mediterranean restaurant housed in a Los Feliz strip mall. LAist

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

A crazy 2020 makes for a presidential race like no other: The fundamentals of the contest have not changed, though the scheduled debates loom large. Democrat Joe Biden clings to a healthy lead over President Trump in national polls and a narrower advantage in most battleground states, as the two vie for an unusually small number of voters still up for grabs. Los Angeles Times

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State officials will mark the Labor Day holiday by sending a $900 supplemental unemployment benefit to jobless residents — but many will not get the assistance right away, and nearly 200,000 people are not expected to get it at all. The lump-sum payment covers three weeks of benefits retroactive to the week that ended Aug. 1 at the rate of $300 per week and is paid for by the federal government. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

The California Supreme Court is consistently unanimous, even in contentious cases. This year, almost 90% of their rulings have been unanimous. San Francisco Chronicle

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Keiana Aldrich was 17 when sent to prison. Her mental health has deteriorated behind bars, but the coronavirus has cut off nearly all help. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Online learning resumes Tuesday in Sacramento. But the district and teachers union haven’t agreed on a schedule, adding a new layer of uncertainty for tens of thousands of families. Sacramento Bee

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“This was absolutely reckless and selfish.” San Francisco’s mayor admonished the thousand-person crowd that gathered at Ocean Beach on Saturday night to celebrate what would have been the 34th year of Burning Man. SFGATE

Many Palm Springs-area hotels found themselves fully booked over the holiday weekend. “We weren’t expecting this much of a turnout ... It’s great.” KESQ

A poem to start your Tuesday: “Life’s Work” by Brenda Shaughnessy. The Paris Review

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 85. San Diego: sunny, 76. San Francisco: partly sunny, 84. San Jose: partly sunny, 94. Fresno: sunny, 100. Sacramento: windy, 96. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Phyllis Solgere:

My California memory is of summers at Pacific Ocean Park amusement park in Santa Monica. My family lived in South Central L.A. and we kids took the bus everywhere. In the summertime, we would take the #84 north on Western Avenue and transfer to the westbound Santa Monica bus on Pico Boulevard. A short walk from the end of the line was Pacific Ocean Park, or POP as we used to call it. We spent many fun days there.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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