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‘You couldn’t see anything’: California wildfire rescuees recount harrowing helicopter journeys

Two pilots who led rescue called it most harrowing flying of their careers

Thomas Fuller,Sarah Mervosh
Wednesday 09 September 2020 10:21 BST
A brush fire encroaches along Japatul Road as a helicopter drops water during the Valley Fire in Jamul, California
A brush fire encroaches along Japatul Road as a helicopter drops water during the Valley Fire in Jamul, California (Getty)

Even over the crackling roar of the wildfire surrounding them, Daniel Crouch heard the hum of military helicopters emerging out of the smoky darkness.

“The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see anything — but you could hear the blades of the helicopter,” said Mr Crouch, who was among dozens of Labour Day vacationers trapped by a fast-moving wildfire in the forests south of Yosemite National Park on Saturday. “That thump-thump-thump of the helicopter out in the distance,” Mr Crouch said.

In a scene that played out multiple times over the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon, the California National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians, their exits trapped by a dense ring of fire. Before the helicopter’s arrival, Mr Crouch had waded into a lake up to his neck to escape the smoke and whipping embers, shivering in the cool water. “It was go underwater, come up, take a breath,” he recalled.

Two pilots who led that rescue, both military veterans, said it was the most harrowing flying they have done in their careers. Crew members became nauseated from the smoke. They flew up a valley in strong winds, surpassing ridgelines illuminated by fire. They contemplated turning back.

“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” chief warrant officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter, said in a briefing.

“I’ve been flying for 25 years,” he said, removing a cloth mask to speak. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” he said of the rescue missions in California.

The scramble to deploy the Blackhawk and a tandem-rotor Chinook helicopter is testament to the speed and ferocity of the recent fires in California. In the Sierra, the fires blocked the roads of Labor Day revellers like Mr Crouch. In Santa Cruz County, fire tore through a forested community even before evacuation orders were issued.

More than 2.2 million acres of parched lands have burned this year, a record for the state, and fire season is far from over — California is entering what are traditionally the most dangerous months of fire weather.

As of noon Tuesday, 362 people and at least 16 dogs had been evacuated by air from burning forests of cedar and ponderosa pine. The Creek Fire, which ignited Friday evening, had burned 143,929 acres — five times the size of San Francisco — and was still raging out of control. It is one of more than 20 wildfires in California.

Rescued passengers on Tuesday morning were seen on video streaming across the tarmac with backpacks and hiking shoes, the rotors of a Chinook still whirring.

The California National Guard is routinely called to help with search-and-rescue operations on land and at sea, but members of the Guard say they have seen nothing like this.

Chief warrant officer Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of the Chinook, said in an interview on Tuesday that as someone born and raised in the state, the fires were particularly affecting.

“It’s really sad that California has to go through all these disasters — it seems like one after another,” he said. Over the past four years, the state has suffered fires, flooding, mudslides and an earthquake on the edge of the desert.

“As a citizen of California it gets really draining,” he said.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday described the effort to rescue about 200 people from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the Sierra as lifesaving. He said the weekend’s extraordinary heat made for one of the most challenging times in California’s history. By Tuesday, Pacific Gas and Electric began the largest safety power shut-off of the year in 22 counties across Northern and Central California. The blackouts are meant to lower the possibility of new fires being ignited by electrical equipment.

Mr Newsom warned that high winds forecast for Tuesday night and Wednesday, from Northern California to the south, could worsen the fires and force more evacuations.

“We’re resilient,” he said. “We’ll get through this. This is not a permanent state.”

While California’s climate has always made the state prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and larger fires is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“This climate change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels,” he said. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.”

Fire and extreme weather were also battering other parts of the West, as hot temperatures, strong winds and dry conditions gave way to devastation. Fire ripped through Malden, Washington, a town of about 200 people in the eastern part of the state, leaving about 80 per cent of the town destroyed. In Oregon, officials in Marion County, south of Portland, implored some residents to “please leave now” as fires that have burned through more than 27,000 acres approached more densely populated areas.

For those who became trapped by the wildfires in California, the weekend began as an ordinary retreat into the Sierra National Forest, a vast expanse in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Fresno.

Sal Gonzalez, a high school athletics equipment manager from Madera, California, has an annual tradition of meeting up with wrestling teammates from college each Labour Day weekend.

This year, they piled into his Toyota Tacoma loaded with dry food, cooking gear and fishing poles, and a 16-foot pontoon boat in tow. They arrived to a crowded campsite near the Mammoth Pool Reservoir on Saturday, where vacationers were swimming in the lake and carousing on Jet Skis.

It was crowded, Mr Gonzalez recalled. “Everyone is going about their day like nothing is abnormal.”

The first sign of fire did not come until the afternoon, when ash began falling on their tent.

When they saw flames in the mountains, they threw their supplies in the boat and sped away. Back in the parking area, Mr Gonzalez pressed an alarm again and again to find his car, but heard nothing. His truck had been torched. They had no way out.

Mr Crouch had been camping in the Sierra with his wife, daughters and grandson when they first heard word of a potential fire late on Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon, he said, flames had surrounded the lake.

With the roads blocked, he raced toward the water. He spent about 30 minutes gulping for air amid the smoke. His 3-year-old grandson floated on the lid of an ice chest.

“We were stuck,” said Mr Crouch, who spent the next several hours taking cover in his car and on the beach. He later met up with Mr Gonzalez’s group, and offered to store belongings for them in his car.

“We thought we were going to be there for several days,” Mr Crouch said. “We had no knowledge of any kind of rescue.”

After dark, from somewhere in the smoky, orange sky, they heard a roaring hum, and later saw a bright spotlight. The two helicopters were descending upon them.

“People started cheering,” Mr Crouch said.

Dozens of people rushed toward the helicopters. Under the roar of the blades, guardsmen, dressed in camouflage and wearing night-vision goggles, signaled silently for people to climb aboard.

Women, children and those with injuries from the fire went first. The helicopters made three round trips. The third and final helicopter rescue arrived around 2am on Sunday.

The remaining passengers climbed on board. A father gripped his tearful children. Mr Crouch, whose family had left on an earlier flight, boarded alone. Mr Gonzalez looked out the back of the helicopter and could see fires dancing on the ground.

When they landed at the airport in Fresno, passengers burst into applause. “Everybody wanted to be off the helicopter,” Mr Gonzalez recalled, “and be on soil.”

New York Times

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