By Elizabeth Yelton
Public information officer. District 6
When the Labor Day 2020 weekend kicked off, no one could ever anticipate the events that would follow and how they would affect numerous Fresno and Madera County residents.
California is no stranger to wildfires and District 6, which encompasses Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, has seen its fair share.
On the night of Friday, Sept. 4, a small fire was reported to emergency services, and before 24 hours would pass, that same small fire would explode into what would eventually be the largest single fire in the history of California.
Evacuation of residents started within 24 hours and just 19 days after starting, the Creek Fire would burn over 290,000 acres and displace thousands. Caltrans District 6 staff would be called to a challenge and would accept that challenge with the same ferocity of which the Creek Fire burned around their beloved homes and recreation spots.
More than a dozen Caltrans employees were evacuated, given evacuation warnings or lost homes in the Creek Fire, but one story of evacuation stands out because the involved person embodies the spirit of Caltrans. When faced with adversity, willfully choosing the path that fulfills their dedication to public service.
Caltrans equipment operator Eric Gonzalez planned a weekend getaway to Mammoth Pools, a reservoir that borders Madera and Fresno County in the Sierra Nevada, with his nephew and family friends for Labor Day weekend. The weekend started on Friday afternoon with little recognition that a fire burned deep in the Sierra National Forest. Late on Saturday, campers in the area of Mammoth Pools noticed that a fire was quickly approaching their location.
Before campers could pack up and make plans to exit, the fire surrounded the lake and raged across the only access road in and out of the area. Eric, like many campers, shared how he attempted to escape the area, but after finding the only road in and out of the campground to be overtaken by the fire, he did the only thing that he and others could do: contact family and let them know that everything was OK for the time being and then shelter in place as the fire surrounded them.
Eric described how he and others directed fellow campers to jump into the water and cover themselves with the soaked towels to protect them and small children from the falling embers and ashes. The fire continued to burn around them for what felt like eternity and around midnight on Sunday, Sept. 6, National Guard members in Chinook helicopters navigated their way to Mammoth Pools to start evacuating the stranded campers.
Eric, one of the last evacuees was removed around 2 a.m. early Sunday morning. Less than 72 hours after being evacuated, He returned to work as a part of Crew 651 and was ready to report to duty in any area that he was needed in. When Eric’s supervisor asked if he was mentally and emotionally prepared to work after his harrowing experience, Eric replied, “This is my job, [let’s] get work done for the people.”
District 6 crews worked traffic control and closures in the beginning of the fire, cleared roadways for emergency vehicles through the fire and as soon as they safely could, started on repairs and replacements along State Route 168 in anticipation for the repopulation of the Shaver Lake community. Just over 5,000 feet of guardrail has been replaced, over 1,000 trees have been cut and removed from state right of way, over 200 signs were replaced or repaired and over 50 linear miles were repainted.
Currently, District 6 has a $3.35 million emergency contract in place for repairs needed due to the Creek Fire. The emergency contract will help fund traffic control, construction area signs, clearing of debris from drainage ditches/inlets, erosion control, felling and removal of hazard trees, removal of downed trees, culvert repair, culvert replacement, pavement repair and shoulder embankment repair.
To date, the Creek Fire has burned 379,335 acres and is 70 percent contained. Like many fires before, the Creek Fire will affect District 6 for years to come, when large amounts of precipitation or snow fall in the area, crews will once again rise to the challenge of providing a safe and efficient route of travel for residents and visitors alike.