Two California National Guard helicopter crews rescued an astonishing 200 people that had been surrounding by rapidly advancing forest fires over the weekend. The air crews, operating a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, were advised that they may want to hold out for better conditions or a safer landing site, as the high woods and raging fire would make for dangerous flying in extremely low visibility.
When given the option to hold fast and wait for better conditions or to dive headlong into smoke-filled night sky, the National Guard helicopter crews chose the latter, embarking on what they would later describe as the “most dangerous” flights of their careers.
By the time the National Guard crews were in the air, daylight had given way to a night sky that was even darker than normal, thanks to the billowing clouds erupting from the fire raging unchecked below. The Guardsmen opted to don their night vision goggles as they navigated through the dense smoke that was being whipped around by winds exceeding 30 knots.
“We could make out the terrain a whole lot better, even through the smoke, because of the embers that were on the terrain that we wouldn’t normally be able to see,” Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of the CH-47, told ABC News.
The fire began at around 6:45 p.m. Friday evening, and by Saturday evening when the rescue operation was mounted, it had already spread to encompass more than 5,000 acres. Despite the efforts of more than 450 firefighters, 20 fire engines, two firefighting helicopters and three more air tankers, the blaze was still spreading uncontrolled.
Once the two helicopters reached a group of campers that had been surrounding by the fire, they realized the severity of the situation. There were a number of injured civilians, many of whom had severe burns, and in total, there were more than 200 in need of evacuation. As the two helicopters touched down, the surrounding flames were already within 50 to 75 feet of their position.
“There are a couple pictures out there and — not bravado — but it was five times worse than any of those pictures,” said CW5 Kipp Goding, who piloted the Black Hawk. “Every piece of vegetation, as far as you can see around that lake, was on fire.”
After harrowing the smoke-filled skies to reach the campers, the two crews took off once again — now with nearly 50 people in the Chinook and another dozen in the Blackhawk. As their rotors tore through the black smoke above, more than a hundred would have to wait for the helicopters to return as the flames closed in.
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
“We were quickly running out of time. We decided then to pack as many people in as we could,” said Rosamond.
“At that point our performance limitations were very, very close to the maximum capabilities of the aircraft, at least for the Chinook.”
The two National Guard air crews would brave the inferno two more times, ultimately evacuating all the campers from the area, save two who opted to remain behind.
“Here, the stress and the added workload of going in and out of that fire every time is definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” said Goding.
And Goding should know; He’s been piloting helicopters for the Army for over 25 years, including combat operations in the Middle East. His sentiments were echoed by the pilot of the other helicopter as well.
“This was the worst forest conditions that I had to fly in,” said Rosamond.
Rosamond went on to emphasize that everyone on his helicopter had agreed to go forward and could decide to step back if things got too risky. Knowing full well that there were lives on the line, both teams didn’t hesitate to push forward. The first group of people the air crews saved were made up largely of women and children.
“It was very emotional,” explained Sgt. Cameron Powell, a flight engineer aboard the Chinook.
“Especially when I looked back and saw children who are the same age as my children.”
Both aircrews have been heralded as heroes on social media, but they’re quick to point out that, in their minds, they were doing exactly what they train to do. After all, like most National Guard units, the California National Guard air crews tasked with this weekend’s rescue operations are local to the area they’re serving in.
“This is our backyard, this area that we’re operating in, it’s where we train and we’re out there a couple times a week,” said Goding.
“It’s also the local community for us, friends, neighbors, people we go to church with and are friends with, so we all know people who have been definitely evacuated and we fly over neighborhoods where we know people that live there.”
Here are the full names of the heroic California National Guardsmen that mounted this weekend’s rescue:
Airframe: CH-47 from Stockton
- CW5 Rosamond
- CW2 Hlebain
- SGT Esquivel
- SGT Powell
Airframe: UH-60M from Fresno
- CW5 Goding
- CW2 Hernandez
- WO1 Xiong (CE pending flight school)