On September 5th, over 200 lakeside campers found themselves stranded in the Sierra National Forest when a fast-moving fire began consuming everything around them.
The California National Guard, in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, embarked on a mission to rescue the stranded campers amid high winds, sparking embers, and smoke – and all through the darkness of night.
“Every piece of vegetation, as far as you can see around that lake, was on fire,” said CW5 Kipp Goding, who piloted the Black Hawk.
The helicopters had to land within 50 to 75 feet from the fire in order to rescue the campers, with air temperatures over 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each helicopter made three separate flights to rescue the entire group of 203 people, each time packing in more people than they would normally carry. Women and children were evacuated first. Several of the stranded were injured, suffering severe burns and broken bones.
“The conditions were pretty extreme,” said the Chinook pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond. “There were points along the route where…we were just ready to say that’s enough.” But Rosamond and his helicopter crew made the continual decision to move forward with the operation.
“Each person knew the situation and knew the hazards,” said Rosamond of his crew. “They accepted the risk and called to continue on, even though I’m sure they were beyond anything they have ever seen. It is a testament to the professionalism of the crew, the training, and the support we have.”
The California National Guard posted a photo of the rescue effort on Twitter:
Dozens of evacuees are evacuated to safety on a Cal Guard Chinook last night after the Creek Fire in central California left them stranded. Photo courtesy California National Guard. pic.twitter.com/mi7X6wchpN
— The California National Guard (@CalGuard) September 6, 2020
Goding, who has flown helicopters for the Army for 25 years, and who has flown combat missions in the Middle East, called this flight one of the most dangerous missions he has ever flown.
“Here, the stress and the added workload of going in and out of that fire every time is definitely by far the toughest flying I’ve ever done,” Goding said.
Major General David S. Baldwin, Adjutant General for the California National Guard, praised the efforts of the crews: “Our Army National Guard pilots and their crews are true heroes for risking their lives to save hundreds from the flames of the Creek Fire after being directed in by Cal Fire operations experts.”
“This was all done in close coordination with Cal Fire, Fresno Fire and Fresno Sheriff’s Departments, and civilian medical services,” continued Major General Baldwin. “It was a very, very well coordinated interagency response on the fly.”
According to the CAL FIRE website, there have been 7,718 wildfire incidents this year, burning over 3.1 million acres, and leaving 20 people dead.
The California National Guard has run many missions over the course of the week to rescue others stranded by the fires. An article from Vertical Mag provides many details of the harrowing missions that have been conducted in order to rescue as many as possible from the fires currently raging through California.