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California wildfires force evacuations; National Guard rescues 35

High winds blow embers and flames across Highway 168 as the Creek Fire rapidly expands on Tuesday near Shaver Lake, Calif. Photo by Peter DaSilva/UPI
High winds blow embers and flames across Highway 168 as the Creek Fire rapidly expands on Tuesday near Shaver Lake, Calif. Photo by Peter DaSilva/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 8 (UPI) -- California's National Guard said helicopter crews rescued 35 people trapped by the Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest on Tuesday.

The rescues came as hundreds wildfires across the state collectively burned more than 2 million acres in recent weeks.

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Army National Guard Col. David Hall told NBC's Today that three helicopters picked up the stranded campers near the Lake Edison and China Peak areas of the national forest.

"We've made multiple attempts the past couple of days trying to get to those remote camp sites," he said. "Weather and the smoke are cooperating with us better, and we're going to keep working tirelessly...until we get out as many people as we can."

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Over the weekend, military helicopters were used to rescue about 200 people trapped by the fire at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir after it exploded in size.

As of Tuesday, the blaze had consumed at least 143,000 acres and was 0% contained.

On Monday night, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office issued evacuation orders for the entire town of Auberry and several other locations.

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Evacuation orders have also been issued for Madera County, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

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Officials said the fire grew in all directions Monday with some 1,060 personnel working to protect lives and property.

Brandon Pursell of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office described the fire to reporters during a news conference as an "unprecedented disaster" for Fresno, urging those under emergency evacuation warnings to prepare to leave at a moment's notice.

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"We are going to be expecting additional evacuations and additional warnings to be going out throughout this fire," he said.

The Creek Fire is among hundreds raging throughout the state, consuming more than 2.178 million acres this fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's website.

Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told CNN the millions of acres torched was a state record.

"This is crazy," he said. "We haven't even got into the October and November fire season and we've broken the all-time record."

Eight people have died this fire season and nearly 4,000 structures have been either damaged or destroyed.

On Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to the fires that have been exacerbated by extreme temperatures, lightning strikes and arid conditions.

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One fire began as a result of a "pyrotechnic device" used during a gender reveal party, Cal Fire said.

Pacific Gas and Electric said late Monday it had begun turning off power in high fire-threat areas, affecting 172,000 customers in 22 counties with the expectation that the shutoff will last through Wednesday morning.

"Due to forecast extreme weather conditions, PG&E is considering proactively turning off power for safety," the utility said in a statement on Facebook. "Windy conditions, like those being forecast, increase the potential for damage and hazards to the electric infrastructure, which could cause sparks if lines are energized."

The utility said the National Weather Service has placed 1.5 million of its customers under red flag warning conditions.

The fires have also prompted the U.S. Forest Service to close eight national forests in the state and prohibit the use of any ignition source on all national forest system lands throughout California.

"The wildfire situation throughout California is dangerous and must be taken seriously," Randy Moore, regional forester with the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, said in a statement. "Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire."

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