Heroic woman recounts near-death experience in California inferno
A nurse caught in the middle of the Camp Fire in California told AccuWeather’s Bill Wadell how she treated burn victims and was later airlifted to safety, herself.
A Labor Day weekend camping trip to Mammoth Lake Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest of California for a mother, her boyfriend and family turned into a nightmare in a matter of minutes. Preparing for the worst as the couple became trapped along with more than 200 others by a raging wildfire, Christina Lopez sent a desperate message to her family to tell them she loved them.
Lopez shared the background story for footage she had captured during the couple's harrowing escape of the Creek Fire with AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell in a video interview.
The day started out like a normal holiday weekend away, but it will be a day Lopez will never forget.
Creek Fire survivor Christina Lopez recalling what happened the day of the rescue. (AccuWeather / Bill Wadell)
“We saw the fire up on the hill to the left of us. We had asked about it, and they told us that it was fine that the fire was being put out and not to worry,” Lopez said.
After gathering their belongings to go down to the nearby lake area, which was about 10 minutes from the campground, Lopez said they saw flames on the other side of the body of water. However, at that time, they were still told everything was OK, she recalled.
The campers didn’t realize how quickly conditions were about to change.
“Ten minutes later, we were told that we were being evacuated. So we grabbed our stuff, ran to the campground,” Lopez said. When the couple reached the campground, the fire was already beginning the char the area.
The campers were able to gather most of their stuff but had to leave behind R.V.’s, A.T.V.’s and tents because they were told to immediately flee. And, the only way out was a narrow one-way road.
“The whole left side of the road ... was completely blocked by fire and trees had fallen down completely blocking any way out," Lopez said. "So at that time, we were told to seek refuge at the lake, and, if need be, jump into it."
When Lopez and her family started to make their way down the road, it looked as if they were driving straight into the inferno.
“I think some people started to get scared so they started making U-turns and blocking the road. I had a big jeep so we were able to go off to the side and get around those people and get down to the lake. I believe that’s why some people burned. They got trapped. Trees fell on their cars,” Lopez said.
Gabe Huck, right, a member of a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, stands along state Highway 168 while fighting the Creek Fire, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Shaver Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
As the fire was igniting everything around Lopez, and cars started blocking the route to safety, she came to a grim realization: They were trapped in all directions. That was when she knew she had to send one last message to her loved ones.
“I had messaged my family, my children and my sister, and I had told them that I was trapped by fire on all sides and that I loved them,” Lopez tearfully recalled to Wadell. "And after that, I lost service for about three hours."
Finally, Lopez and others made it to the lake, where they just were 20 minutes prior. However, by then, it was almost completely engulfed in flames coming from every direction, she said.
“We saw fire tornadoes. There’s big embers falling down. Nobody could get out of their cars during that time. It seemed like the wind was fire. It was like Armageddon,” Lopez said, adding that their car windows were hot to the touch as the flames surrounded them.
Lopez’s boyfriend suggested they wait until everything calmed down once the fire had incinerated all of the trees and brush. So, they waited for a period of time that Lopez believes lasted about 40 minutes to an hour.
When people were able to emerge from their vehicles, that's when Lopez, who is a nurse, jumped into action to triage people that had been hurt, including some who had been badly burned.
“I started trying to help people, but, you know, we only had emergency kits and each kit has a limited amount of things," Lopez said, adding that she saw some people "who were really badly burned."
At least two people had suffered severe injuries. Plus, Lopez was worried someone was going to suffer an asthma attack or a heart attack due to the thick smoke.
“I set up on a flatbed of someone’s truck and everyone kept bringing me their medical kits and some pain medication to help treat the people. But at the end, I ended up having to use napkins and stuff to dress wounds," to shield them from smoke and other debris, Lopez said.
Lopez recalled her fear that one girl would go into shock, a condition which she said she didn’t have enough supplies to treat.
“I always have support and have things I need, so to be in the situation where I didn’t have enough to treat people was hard,” Lopez said.
With no I.V. fluids to administer, she reminded people to drink fluids to prevent people from suffering shock or becoming dehydrated. And, besides the physical injuries, many were dealing with a range of emotions from the trauma.
“We had been told it was going to be a couple of days until we were going to be rescued because of the conditions,” Lopez said.
Then, the group heard the sounds of helicopters, and when they came into view everyone began to cheer.
A helicopter prepares to drop water at a wildfire. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)
The California National Guard Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters flew in and out three times to rescue everyone that had been trapped. All told, more than 200 people were airlifted to safety in the nighttime rescue mission.
“Everybody came together and helped. And we were just such a cohesive group. It was almost like we became a family at that moment,” Lopez said.
The Creek Fire has burned more than 175,000 acres since igniting on Sept. 4. Five days later, the blaze was 0% contained and had destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in Fresno and Madera counties.
Lopez's near-death experience will definitely shape her actions in the future, she said. For one thing, she and her family will likely never camp again.
“I don’t think we’ll be camping anymore," Lopez said. "Not unless there’s an easy way out. We’ll be looking for escape routes at all times in the future, and I definitely will have a lot more medical supplies on me at all times now."
Lopez is thankful for the “true heroes” for everything that they did and for being so strong, kind and compassionate.
In this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, photo released by the California National Guard, shows the view from a Cal Guard Chinook helicopter rescuing people trapped after the Creek Fire in central California left them stranded. (California National Guard via AP)
“We know how much they put their lives at risk to save us that day. And the amount of effort ... We have never been prouder to be Americans in the moment we saw them,” Lopez said. “That’s what America's about, those kind people who come in and selflessly risk their lives to save others and give them compassion and kindness. It was amazing.”
Reporting by Bill Wadell.
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