(CNN)Jeremy Remington didn’t like his chances when he, his family and scores of other campers gathered on the edge of a California lake as the Creek Fire closed in.
Fire was burning Saturday night in the trees and hills on all sides of the Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The roads were impassable, the air thick with smoke, and no one had cell phone service.
Then they heard a helicopter.
“Everyone was screaming, jumping, yelling, hugging” after the crew noticed the crowd and dipped the helicopter toward them, he recalled. “It was one of the best feelings in my life.”
“We (had) all thought we were goners.”
Remington was one of more than 220 people who authorities said were airlifted Saturday night from the Sierra National Forest’s Mammoth Pool Reservoir area northeast of Fresno as the Creek Fire tore through. The blaze started late last week in the forest’s Shaver Lake area and had burned more than 163,000 acres by Wednesday, one of more than 90 major wildfires burning across the US West.
The number airlifted from the forest by high-capacity military helicopters through Tuesday had risen to about 385, California National Guard Col. David Hall told CNN.
As his own escape unfolded, Remington captured video of some of its harrowing moments. He described the flight to safety to Alisyn Camerota on Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day.”
‘It all happened so fast’
Remington and relatives — his mother, his partner, and his brother and sister-in-law and their two children — had been camping on the other side of the lake Saturday morning, in part to celebrate his mother’s retirement.
Not long after they noticed smoke in the distance, a roughly 12-hour ordeal to leave the forest began.
Sometime after a trip to a store Saturday, Remington recorded video of him in riding in a car, with fire burning trees on both sides of the road.
“It all happened so fast,” he said.
Back at his campsite, there was nowhere left to go by vehicle. His brother had a boat, so they piled in and motored to the other side of the lake, eventually joining scores of other people in a camping area along the water.
No one had cell phone service, he said.
“There was no word. Talking with other people who were stranded, no one heard anything,” Remington said.
In the evening, he recorded a panoramic view. All was hazy, and trees, brush and sky were growing yellow and orange in most places around him, with thick walls of gray smoke looming elsewhere.
“There’s fire on all sides, all around us,” he says on the video.
“You could feel the heat. The embers were falling on you and hitting you in the face,” he recalled to CNN. “It was unreal.”
Though he says he thought he wouldn’t get out, he and others tried to stay outwardly positive.
“We tried to keep it together as best we could … especially for the young kids, and just for other people around and their children,” he said. “You don’t want to lose it.”
Campers flash their lights at a helicopter
Eventually, they heard a helicopter in the distance.
“Everyone started flashing their lights, putting their — you know, their hazard lights on their cars, flashlights in the sky, to make sure the helicopters saw us,” he recalled.
“Once they saw us and they started getting lower, we knew that rescue and help was on the way,” Remington said.
“You can’t describe it unless you have been in that situation. Like, you’re going to die, and then all of a sudden you’re not. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Several helicopter trips were made to evacuate the campers. A Chinook took dozens of people at a time, images show.
On Wednesday, Remington, speaking to CNN from Palmdale outside Los Angeles, said his family was doing OK.
“We’re trying to get back to life as we can,” he said. “We still don’t know anything about our belongings or vehicles. We just assume everything is gone. That’s probably the best way, is to assume. And then if it’s not, you know, thumbs up.”