FRESNO, Calif. (KGPE) — Two days after being rescued by military helicopter, three hikers from Fresno are telling their story about escaping the possible wrath of the Creek Fire.
Three experienced hikers — Albert Yurgal, Riley Budd and James Sponsler — set out on Saturday to hike a 27-mile section of the John Muir Trail between Edison and Florence Lakes. The hike was supposed to be pretty routine for these three, and last only a couple days, but it turned out to be anything but routine.
“I mean, before I even left Fresno, I checked all weather conditions, fire conditions and everything.,” says Yurgal. Everything was just hunky-dory.”
But on Sunday, their second day of hiking, the conditions around them started to change.
“I looked at my tent and I’m going, ‘it’s really smoky and foggy out here,” says Yurgal.
Around that time, they got word from Albert’s wife, via satellite communication, that the Creek Fire was burning wildly in the forest.
“And we saw two massive smokeheads over the ridge,” says Sponsler. “And realized that we needed to get out, and we needed to get out now.”
Carrying 35-pound backpacks, they double-timed the rest of the hike to Florence Lake, where they had put one of their cars.
“Pretty much most of the day Sunday, we were at a pretty good jogging pace I would say,” says Budd.
But they got to that car a couple hours too late to make it back to Fresno safely, as Highway 168, their car route back to the Central Valley, was already closed. So instead, they headed back to their hike’s starting point at Vermillion Valley Resort at Edison Lake. The spot was filling up with hikers who were now stranded.
“There was plenty to do where we could help each other out,” says Budd.
And since the resort’s kitchen staff had already evacuated, Sponsler and Budd, who are both Eagle Scouts, and Yurgal, who is a Scoutmaster, used their previous experience in camp kitchens, to prepare a nice breakfast for everybody Monday morning, and an even better dinner Monday night, for over 130 people who had assembled at the Resort.
“Monday night, (we) made tri-tip and bacon, green beans, and a red wine parmesan risotto,” says Sponsler. “You could say ‘we ate like kings.'”
With a rescue still uncertain, these three also started developing a strategy for everybody to hike east, away from the fire to safety on the eastern side of the Sierras.
“That evacuation plan would have been about a 27-mile hike over the Sierra, to Tom’s Place, which is near Mammoth Lakes,” says Sponsler.
Fortunately, thanks to the National Guard’s helicopters and skilled pilots, these three got to use air travel, instead of their feet, to ultimately be airlifted back to safety Tuesday morning.
“We were one of the last helicopters to get out of there, because we wanted to make sure that the more vulnerable people were out first,” says Budd.
And making things even better for Sponsler, he made it back to Fresno on Tuesday, just in time to make his dentist appointment, with about an hour to spare.