Backpacking trip turned dangerous, 5 Bay Area friends recount terrifying evacuation from fire in Sierra National Forest

Luz Pena Image
Monday, September 7, 2020
Bay Area hikers recount terrifying escape from Sierra National Forest fire
A backpacking trip in the Sierra National Forest turned dangerous for a Bay Area group of friends who had to escape the Creek Fire burning in Fresno & Madera Counties. The hikers described their terrifying journey driving flame-filled roads.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- More than 200 people had to be rescued Saturday after getting trapped near a lake because of the Creek Fire burning 73,378 acres in Fresno County.

A dramatic rescue using helicopters by the California National Guard lifted people to safety.

RELATED: 214 people airlifted from Mammoth Pool reservoir in daring rescue

As of 1 am on Sunday, at least 163 people have been rescued from Mammoth Pool, Minarets, and Cascadel Woods.

For some Bay Area hikers, however, they had to drive their way out of danger and that meant passing through the burning forest to get to safety.

ABC7 News reporter Luz Pena spoke to a group of friends about their harrowing escape where minutes felt like hours.

"You could literally feel the heat inside the car," said Bana, the driver of the group.

Inside the car, five Bay Area friends on a backpacking trip telling each other they were going to survive.

"Fearful because I realized how close of a call it was," Juliana Park said.

"A bunch of fire...everything was lit. It was pretty scary," described Devin Villarosa.

It's surreal to think that an hour prior to their "close call" they were hiking in the Sierra National Forest searching for a water source to camp for the night.

"At the time when we were planning there were no fires in the region where we were going," said Lucy Wang.

Over an hour into their hike they heard thunder.

"We noticed that the thunderstorm got worse and then there were black ashes raining upon us. At this point we made the decision to head back," said Villarosa.

The hike down took two hours. When they arrived to their car they met a park ranger.

"She found us and told us there is a fire across the road. But we didn't know where to go," said Wang.

RELATED: Creek Fire grows to 73,278 acres with 0% containment, thousands of structures threatened

"All my friends took the directions and wrote them down of where to take a right or a left. All I had to do was concentrate on the road and try to avoid anything," said Bana.

The ranger let them out to safety but warned them that what was ahead was dangerous.

"She gave us instructions as to what to do and told us to keep moving forward," said Villarosa.

They now wonder about the "what if's."

"10 minutes later from our plan it could have been different or if we decided not to turn back and we might have not come out uninjured," said Villarosa.

Their bond even stronger 24 hours later. They're hoping to find the park ranger someday and say "thank you."

"She saved our lives," said Park.