I’m running back to the campsite to take cover. My cousin is at my right. Loud thunder roars. 20 miles per hour winds and rain pelt us, but this rain is not normal—it’s black. At the center of every rain droplet is ash that gives the droplets a black greasiness. We shield our eyes from the wind so that we can see where we are stepping. Our goal is to make it back to the little tent where our family is that we can figure out what to do.
Every Labor Day, my family goes on a backpacking trip. It’s a chance for us to get together while also enjoying the outdoors. Last year we backpacked in the Stanislaus National Forest; and the year before that the Hoover Wilderness Area in the Inyo National Forest; and the year before that, Desolation Wilderness, near Tahoe.
This Labor Day, we drove up to the Sierra National Forest and backpacked through the Ansel Adams Wilderness to some alpine lakes.
The Creek Fire started only hours after we began our backpacking on Friday, Sept. 4. Covering a meager 5 acres, the blaze hadn’t even made the news when we lost cell coverage, so we went along our way unknowingly while the fire’s strength grew exponentially, creeping upon us as we enjoyed the beautiful Labor Day weekend. The first night we camped at Lady Lake. At 9,500 feet, we had it all to ourselves.
Saturday dawned beautifully clear. We ate breakfast, packed up camp and hiked a couple more miles deeper into the backcountry to Lillian Lake, which would be our new camp.
While we were having a wonderful time, the Creek Fire was growing larger, hotter and more dangerous. It was burning its way quickly toward us, covering 17 miles in one day, but all we noticed was a faint smell of smoke that we attributed to other fires farther away. We were unaware of the growing danger.
Wildfires are a nightmarish phenomenon. Once big enough, they can create their own weather. The Creek Fire was at that point big enough that it created its very own thunderstorm and strong winds that made the flames even more erratic. At around midday on Saturday, the fire darkened the sky. The heavy rain and thunder sounded like the mountain agonizing over its wounds.
Sheltering in our tents from the weather, our first step was to gather information. As we peered outside of our tents at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, the sky was so darkened by the cloud of ash and smoke it felt like midnight, except for the lack of stars and the ominous red glow off in the distance.
We talked to the other backpackers along the shore of Lillian Lake to see if they had any useful information. The park rangers told us to evacuate, but we pestered them with questions, only some of which they could answer. We decided to heed their advice and leave.
But getting out wouldn’t be easy. Our car was our best hope of escaping, but it was parked at the trailhead six miles away. And upon reaching the car, we would still have to drive an hour and a half through heavily forested land close to the fire before we’d reach safety. We also needed to figure out which trails and roads to take to get out.
As we packed up our tents, the fire’s wind changed direction and the skies began to clear, at least temporarily. We took advantage of this brief, God-given respite to start on the trail. But when my brother Connor and I walked down to the lake to refill our water bottles, we found out the true extent of the fire’s damage; all along the lake, a layer of ash coated the shoreline and stood between us and the easily filterable water. We had to break the surface of ash to get to the clean water below. After eventually filtering the water, we filled our bottles and returned to camp to prepare for the long hike back to our cars and the subsequent drive to safety.
We hiked for another three and a half hours that day. We were sore and blistered as we maintained a steady snail’s pace of 2 miles per hour. We all trooped on, even when some of us carried up to 45 pounds worth of supplies on our backs. Some of my cousins, as young as eight years old, kept hiking, briefly stopping only twice. Our persistence was rewarded with the occasional glimpse of blue sky in the distance, peeking out from under the orange blanket of ash and setting sunlight. After six more miles than we had planned to hike that day, we finally reached our cars at around 8:30 p.m. We quickly loaded up our backpacks into the ash-covered cars, knowing our journey was long from over. We still had to drive out of the Sierra National Forest. A ranger warned us hours ago that the road we had come up on, Mammoth Road, was engulfed in flame already. Grizzle Road was relatively close to the front of the fire. Beasore Road was farthest from the flames, but it was under construction because they were rebuilding a bridge. As long as we could get past the bridge, it was probably the safest way out. The ranger told us he heard that there was a way around the construction site and that there would be people to direct us around the bridge, but he couldn’t be certain.
We opted for Beasore Road and sped down the unpaved, bumpy dirt road. A few miles later we entered the paved road and saw no fire. We were overjoyed by the first signs of civilization, but only a few minutes later, our cautious optimism was sobered as we looked to our left and saw the Creek Fire burning below, only a few miles away. The fiery glow of heat and burning wood contrasted vividly with the cool night sky. It was uniquely beautiful. But as I looked closer, I could see the tops of giant century-year-old trees engulfed by flames that were leaping from tree to tree, desperately trying to satiate their voracious appetite. We hoped this was the closest we would get to the deadly inferno.
A few minutes later, we came upon the construction site, and luckily the ranger was right. There were people there to guide us around the downed bridge. They told us to drive off the road and down a path. We came to a shallow river and carefully drove through it. We winced as the bottom of our family minivan scraped the stones on the riverbank, but we eventually made it to the other side. We had only driven a little further when we saw a sedan blocking the dirt road. It was stuck on top of a rock. My brother and I got out of our car to help push the sedan off the rock. We pushed with all our force, but the car only rocked. We tried again, and the car tilted off the rock.
We watched carefully as we continued driving over the bumpy terrain, waiting for new problems to arise, but they didn’t. After making it to the other side of the construction and then back on the paved road, we caravanned out of the Sierra National Park and away from the Creek Fire. At 11 p.m., we celebrated our safety with pizza.
As I’m writing this story at 8:30 p.m., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, there are reports that the Creek Fire has now burned 78,700 acres, only continuing to grow. 50 people had to be rescued by helicopter from Lake Edison and China Peak, some with injuries. As exciting and scary as my experiences were, my family and I were very lucky to have witnessed and escaped the Creek Fire.