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'A real milestone': Creek Fire reaches 6% containment, 175,000 acres burned

Joshua Yeager
Visalia Times-Delta
Firefighter Brandon Fino of Riverside works in the Cascadel Woods community east of North Fork on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. The Creek Fire is working its way west.

In a development firefighters are calling "a real milestone," the Creek Fire achieved 6% containment on Thursday after scorching more than 175,000 acres and forcing 45,000 people to evacuate Fresno and Madera counties.

"I think today was really the first day that we've shifted from being primarily on the defense to now being on the offense. That means we're kind of taking the fight back to the fire," Forest Supervisor Dean Gould said during a Thursday night update.

The Creek Fire started Sept. 4 above Shaver Lake and exploded rapidly over Labor Day weekend, stranding hundreds of hikers who were airlifted to safety by National Guard pilots in a harrowing rescue operation. The fire is now the 17th-largest in California history, according to Cal Fire.

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While smoke prevented aircraft from dropping retardant over the fire on Thursday, officials said the inversion layer is a tradeoff that ultimately benefited firefighters. Relatively calmer winds and cooler temperatures slowed the fires' growth to 12,000 additional acres, a "pretty dramatic drop in terms of daily growth," Gould remarked. 

"I want to make it extremely clear: If on any other day ever, 12,000 acres of the Sierra National Forest were consumed, obviously, that would be an extremely hard day," he said. "I am simply pointing out that in comparison to 45,000 or 35,000 (acres), coming down to 12,000 is certainly a very positive trend that I'll take any day in this instance."

U.S. Forest Service employees Jack Froggatt, left, and Matt Call watch from Minarets Road as the western edge of the Creek Fire slowly progresses to the west above Redinger Lake east of North Fork on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

On the ground, roughly 1,300 firefighters dug firelines across the San Joaquin River, allowing management teams on the north and south sides of the fire to get a foothold on the massive blaze. Officials said Creek Fire is the state's No. 1 priority in terms of allocating resources, due to the threat posed by the forest and its many dead trees. 

Firefighters estimate full containment won't be reached until mid-October and expect the fire to continue to expand in the coming days, though not to the extent seen in the early days of the blaze's out-of-control growth. Crews are working the fire from the outside and the inside, both slowing the fire's growth and fortifying communities — such as Shaver Lake and Cascadel Woods — located near the fire's smoldering heart.

Video:Creek Fire smoke visible from space

A total of 361 structures have been destroyed by Creek Fire, no change over Wednesday's report. Sheriff's officials said people did a good job of obeying road closures and no arrests were made. Deputies chased down and arrested two people on Wednesday for illegally entering evacuation zones.

All evacuation orders and advisories remain in effect, officials said. Evacuation centers are located at Clovis North High School and the Mariposa County Fairgrounds.

On Wednesday night, the Creek Fire reached a cache of explosives that China Peak Mountain Resort uses to control avalanches. Fortunately, fire officials were made aware of the explosive materials and were out of the area when they ignited. The Fresno County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will investigate the incident to determine whether the bombs were stored properly.

The Clovis Rodeo Grounds which has served as an emergency shelter for small and equine animals reported it was at capacity Thursday. Displaced animals should be taken to the Fresno Fairgrounds for safety. In Madera County, the Producer's Livestock facility will take large animals.

Across the Golden State, five record-busting blazes are now burning. The North Complex Fire's death toll rose to 10 as authorities reported seven more deaths across Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties on Thursday. 

Statewide, more than 3 million acres have burned, already making 2020 the biggest fire season in recorded history with four months to go. 

Creek Fire Evacuation Orders:

Madera County

  • Bass Lake Basin, including Wishon 
  • Bass Lake Annex, and Manzanita
  • The town of North Fork and the surrounding area

Fresno County 

  • Shaver Lake down to Cressman Road, including Cressman Road
  • Big Creek
  • Huntington Lake
  • Camp Sierra
  • High Sierra areas, which include:  Florence Lake, Ward Lake, Portal Forebay, Edison Lake Mono Hot Springs, Kaiser and all campgrounds 
  • The area west of Tollhouse, along Auberry Road west to Powerhouse Road 
  • Alder Springs, Mile High, Meadow Lakes, Big Sandy, Mono Wind Casino, Jose Basin & Italian Bar 
  • Dinkey Creek, Wishon & Courtright Reservoirs 
  • Tollhouse Road at Peterson Road down to Lodge Road
  • Beal Fire Road
  • Powerhouse Road to the San Joaquin River
  • The entire town of Auberry, which extends from the San Joaquin River on Powerhouse Road to Auberry Road in both directions out to Highway 168. This includes the points next to Prather and next to Cressman's General Store.
  • Sycamore and Burrough Valley
  • Watts Valley from Maxon Road to Pittman Hill Road  
  • Maxon Road to Trimmer Springs Road
  • Humphrey’s Station to Tollhouse Road
  • Humphrey’s Station to Pittman Hill Road to Sample Road

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.