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Argus-Courier reporter rescued by helicopter from Creek fire

Journalists are not meant to be the story. In fact, we go to great lengths to ensure we don’t erroneously insert ourselves into our work.

In this week’s paper, I write the story of how a Petaluma-raised colonel in the U.S. National Guard led a remarkable rescue of a group of hikers trapped by the Creek fire. Coincidentally, among the group he rescued from Lake Edison is a Petaluma-born recent college graduate and his friend from Santa Rosa.

And, me.

My hiking partner and I, herself a Windsor resident, were attempting to hike more than 200 miles of the John Muir Trail within three weeks – a bucket-list adventure through the Sierra Nevada Mountains – starting in Yosemite Valley and ending at the top of Mt. Whitney.

We set out Saturday morning, Sep. 5, on our seventh day on the trail, set to arrive at an outpost the following day where we had shipped our next supply of food.

Shortly after lunch, our bodies groaning under leaden packs, we caught a glimpse of the first smattering of clouds we’d seen in several days. In the distance was what looked like a developing thunderstorm – a pillar of buoyant white cotton rising to our east.

We continued south, climbing more than 2,000 feet to reach a crest with a clear view of the growing cloud. At its apex, it looked just like the stormy formation we had seen earlier that day. But as our eyes followed it down toward the ridgeline, it became clear we were looking at a large and fast-burning wildfire. Viral images a few days later would show what was a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a kind of faux-thunderstorm created when the intense heat of the inferno mixed with the moist air hanging a few miles above earth.

But it would be days until we learned of this phenomenon, and of the extent of the fire’s damage.

Though the image of the cloud burrowed into my mind, it was only a few hours to sunset and more than 10 miles to the nearest road. We had no choice but to hunker down for the night. As we neared our camp spot along a densely-forested creek, the sun began its fast retreat behind the tops of the lodgepole pines encircling our camp, and a smoked amber haze fell like a curtain.

It was past nightfall when, curled up in our sleeping bags, we received the first reliable set of information.

“A new fire called the Creek fire ignited near Fresno in the Sierras and quickly grew to 36,000 acres,” read a message on my satellite device. “Sounds bad.”

My hiking partner and I had a fitful sleep – she had just been evacuated from her Windsor home two weeks prior when the LNU Lightning Complex bore down on the county.

We awoke before sunrise the following morning and backtracked roughly three miles to a trail junction that took us another steep 10 miles downhill to the edge of Lake Edison, and eventually to a popular hiker pit-stop, Vermilion Valley Resort.

As we tumbled out of the trailhead and onto the gravel road, out of breath from a break-neck pace and the effects of heavy smoke, we were met with a succession of packed cars racing in the opposite direction. One hiker crouched in the bed of a speedboat yelled at us, “We’re all evacuating!”

We trudged on a quarter-mile to the resort, emptied by then save for seven other stranded and perplexed hikers fresh off the trail, and a remaining skeleton work crew.

Through the owner’s landline phone connection, we learned that we were under orders from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to stay put. The fire was about 40 miles from us, first consuming Shaver Lake then later racing toward Huntington Lake as its acreage exploded in the following days.

We stayed there from Sunday afternoon to early Monday morning. Eventually, some of the cars we saw race past us returned, their exit route on Highway 168 impassable. Roughly 40 other hikers, “trail refugees” as I termed us, also streamed in from the John Muir Trail.

A small group of Sheriff’s deputies arrived Monday afternoon, announcing we were cleared to evacuate via road in a caravan. But in the 30 minutes it took us to pack up, the window closed, and the fire again jumped Highway 168. Later that day we were told to prepare for what could likely be an early-morning wakeup: we would be evacuated by air.

My hiking partner and the three other female solo hikers we made fast friends with slept fully dressed, our bags packed and poised at our feet. It was around 3:30 a.m. when we heard the rumbling of a helicopter.

Less than an hour later, I was crammed alongside 10 other “trail refugees” inside the belly of a Sikorsky UH-60, or Black Hawk, helicopter, manned by men from Lemoore Search and Rescue outfitted in night-vision goggles.

Our packs in our laps and hoodies pulled tight over our ears in a vain attempt to limit the deafening sound, the windows began to illuminate in a red glow. I gingerly shifted my weight to the right and looked over the shoulder of a fellow passenger, watching as a giant black cloud appeared in the frame, its size and shape so ominous that it was practically comical. Looking down, I saw swaths of flames engulfing patches of forest.

It was only a few hours later, as I rested on the green cots in a Fresno shelter, that my hiking partner and I began to understand what we had just witnessed. All told, more than 300 people were rescued in incredibly risky air evacuation missions led primarily by the U.S. National Guard — and by a Casa Grande High School graduate.

So, when I had the chance to interview Petaluma-raised Col. David Hall for the story detailing his role in the string of daring rescues, I’ll admit I did insert myself in to our conversation for a brief moment, simply to express my gratitude.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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