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Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter crew describes rescue of trapped Marin County firefighters

Paul Bradley was having second thoughts.

The pilot for Henry 1, the Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter unit was airborne over Sonoma County last week and was talking with Tactical Flight Officer Chris Haas. He was sharing with Haas his experience fighting fires from the air as they took the measure of the Walbridge fire churning through rough forestland in northwestern Sonoma County.

“When I got home,” Bradley said, “I was thinking that I should’ve taken him closer to the fire, so he could hear it, and feel it, and get used to it.”

They didn’t have to wait long for that. Shortly after 8 pm the following night, Friday, a call came over the dispatch line from the Marin County Fire Department. Haas has taken hundreds of such requests for aid. But this one, he said, was “unlike any call I’ve ever taken.”

The dispatcher asked if Henry 1 was available to rescue “multiple firefighters trapped” in front of the Woodward fire, then tearing through Point Reyes National Seashore.

“I said, ‘Of course,’” recalled Haas. “But what concerned me was the panic in her voice. It wasn’t like they kind of needed some help and were worried their people might be trapped. It was: They are trapped.”

Bradley and Haas were in the air within three minutes and headed for the spot, southwest of Olema, where a pair of firefighters found themselves on a ridgeline, unable to escape a wall of flames advancing from the east.

Bradley and Haas are seasoned first responders who’ve plucked people from cliffsides, deep woods and heaving oceans. But the extrication of those firefighters ‒ in rugged terrain, among tall trees, on a moonless night, with wind gusts of 35 mph and an inferno closing to within 75 yards ‒ tested them like never before.

It was as if all of the other rescues in his career had prepared him for this one, Haas said Monday.

Some rescues, said Bradley, aren’t especially stressful. “We’re thinking, ‘We’ll get down there, and we’ll do it.’”

On Friday night, “It was gametime the entire time. We were in the zone. We had to be. You have to be able to shut off other things in your life, and focus.”

During the brief flight south, Haas got good news. The dispatcher had narrowed down “multiple” stranded firefighters to just two.

That’s when Murphy’s Law kicked in. One of the coordinates they’d been given to locate the stranded men was incorrect. The big spotlight on the tail of the chopper, imperative for long-line rescues at night, wasn’t working.

While Haas was smacking the spotlight’s controller with his hand, he looked down and saw, in order, the fire, and ‒ alarmingly close ‒ two pinpricks of light pointed at the helicopter: the headlamps of the firefighters.

“We lucked out,” said Haas. “It was almost as if they were meant to be found. I’m not a religious guy, but I believe that.”

Bradley found a landing zone, a small clearing on a bluff where Haas hopped out, grabbed his rope bag from the back of the craft and set it up for a long-line rescue. As he was putting on his harness, he forced himself to take a deep breath.

“I said ‘Calm down. We’ve done this before.’”

But they hadn’t done it under such excruciating pressure. “We had one shot to get it done,” recalled Bradley. “We were running out of time.”

The camera on Haas’s helmet made possible the video posted by the Sheriff’s Office. Haas is calm and reassuring throughout. The footage begins with him being hoisted into the air and flown over a dark landscape, illuminated only by flashes of the helicopter’s lights and the menacing firefront in the distance.

Night Rescue of Marin County Firefighters

8-22-20 6:00 AM – While you were sleeping … (Espanol abajo) Night Long Line Firefighter Rescue **Warning Graphic Language** Tonight, at approximately 8:15 PM, the Marin County Fire Department (MCFD) requested the Sonoma Sheriff’s Helicopter “Henry-1” respond to the area of the Woodward Fire, which is burning in an area of the Point Reyes National Seashore, southwest of Olema. MCFD requested an immediate rescue of two firefighters who had become trapped by fire on a ridgeline and unable to make it out of the path of the advancing fire. Henry 1 is the only helicopter in the region capable of conducting a vertical reference long line rescue at night. When our Fire counterparts call for help, Henry 1 comes flying. Once on scene, Henry 1 located the two Firefighters, who were trapped approximately 75 yards from the advancing fire. To complicate the situation further, the fire was creating strong, gusting winds that intensified as Henry 1 flew closer to the head of the fire. Henry 1 landed approximately a mile from the Firefighter’s location and the Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) configured the helicopter for long line rescue with a 100 foot long line. The TFO subsequently attached himself to the long line and was flown to the location of the firefighters. Upon arriving at the Firefighter’s location, the TFO placed a Bauman Bag rescue device on one of the firefighters and a Horse Collar rescue device on the other. Having a variety of different pieces of equipment on board at all times enables Henry 1 to quickly adapt to dynamic and dangerous situations. In this instance, Henry 1 was able to lift three people, the TFO and both Firefighters, simultaneously to safety. This enabled the rescue to occur in one attempt, as time was clearly of the essence, and limit the amount of time any of them were in the dangerous situation. We have included the video from our TFO’s helmet cam, unedited, and it its entirety. This video does contain some graphic language, but we believe it is important for the public to get an accurate representation of how a nighttime long line looks and feels. Most importantly of all, we are thrilled that both Firefighters are unharmed and in good spirits. Our society depends on First Responders to charge towards danger and place themselves in difficult situations, such as fighting a wildland fire in pitch black nighttime conditions. Sometimes, even First Responders need a First Responder, and nothing gets to these remote locations faster than Henry 1. 8-22-20 6:00 AM - Mientras dormía… Rescate de bomberos en helicóptero ** Lenguaje gráfico de advertencia ** Esta noche, aproximadamente a las 8:15 p.m., el Departamento de Bomberos del Condado de Marin (MCFD) solicitó al helicóptero del Sheriff del condad de Sonoma "Henry-1" que respondiera al área del incendio Woodward, que se está quemando en un área de Point Reyes National Seashore, al suroeste de Olema. MCFD solicitó el rescate inmediato de dos bomberos que habían quedado atrapados por el incendio en una cresta y no pudieron salir del camino del fuego que avanzaba. Henry 1 es el único helicóptero de la región capaz de realizar un rescate nocturno. Cuando nuestros compañeros piden ayuda, Henry 1 llega volando. Una vez en la escena, Henry 1 localizó a los dos bomberos, que estaban atrapados aproximadamente a 75 yardas del incendio que avanzaba. Para complicar aún más la situación, el fuego estaba creando fuertes ráfagas de viento que se intensificaron cuando Henry 1 voló más cerca de la frente del fuego. Henry 1 aterrizó aproximadamente a una milla de la ubicación del bombero y el oficial de vuelo táctico (TFO) configuró el helicóptero para el rescate de una cuerda larga con una línea de 100 pies de largo. Posteriormente, el TFO se adhirió a la larga cuerda y fue trasladado en avión a la ubicación de los bomberos. Al llegar a la ubicación del bombero, el TFO colocó un dispositivo de rescate "Bauman Bag" en uno de los bomberos y un dispositivo de rescate "Horse Collar" en el otro. Tener una variedad de equipos diferentes a bordo en todo momento le permite a Henry 1 adaptarse rápidamente a situaciones dinámicas y peligrosas. En este caso, Henry 1 pudo llevar a tres personas, el TFO y ambos bomberos, simultáneamente a un lugar seguro. Esto permitió que el rescate ocurriera en un intento, ya que el tiempo era claramente esencial, y limitar la cantidad de tiempo que cualquiera de ellos estuvo en la situación peligrosa. Hemos incluido el video de la cámara del casco de nuestro TFO, sin editar, y está completo. Este video contiene algo de lenguaje gráfico, pero creemos que es importante que el público obtenga una representación precisa de cómo se ve y se siente una larga fila nocturna. Lo más importante de todo es que estamos encantados de que ambos Bomberos estén ilesos y de buen humor. Nuestra sociedad depende de los socorristas para que carguen contra el peligro y se coloquen en situaciones difíciles, como combatir un incendio forestal en condiciones nocturnas muy oscuras. A veces, incluso los primeros respondedores necesitan un primer respondedor, y nada llega a estas ubicaciones remotas más rápido que Henry 1.

Posted by Sonoma Sheriff on Saturday, August 22, 2020

Moments later, Bradley lowered him to the two waiting firefighters, their yellow helmets and wildland suits emerging from the glare of the helicopter’s light.

“All right guys, I’m gonna get you out of here, okay?” Haas said.

“One of you needs to put this on. It’s like a jacket, okay?”

With that, he handed the first firefighter a Bauman Bag, a kind of rescue harness for hoisting people out of danger.

But first the men would need to take off their backpacks, he said. They would have to be left behind.

For a brief moment, Haas had considered rigging a kind of webbing that would allow them to bring their packs.

Then he looked up, saw the fire and realized he was out of time.

“Can we take ‘em with us?” asked one of the men.

“No, I gotta get you outta here, dude. It’s like, right there,” he said of the fire.

The second man would be given a simple u-shaped harness that was slipped over his head and under both arms, with the belly of the strap against his chest. Then Haas told the man to grab his crotch ‒ extending his arms over the branches of the U ‒ and to not let go. The firefighter nodded.

Haas gave Bradley the hand signal to get them out of there. The fire was so near that the rotor wash was stirring its embers.

“See how close it is, guys?” Haas said to the men as they dangled in midair.

“Yeah, f***,” one replied. “Thank you for coming.”

“Hell yeah, man,” Haas said. “Anything for you guys.”

Bradley put them down on the Coast Trail, a mile or so north of Sculptured Beach, where they exchanged “man hugs,” pummeling each on the back. Eventually, a truck came and picked them up.

The two firefighters, unidentified by their department, could not be reached Monday for their side of story.

Sheriff Mark Essick found out about the rescue the following morning. Watching the video, he said, “made me proud, and gave me goosebumps.”

The rescue came amid the runup to a round of county budget cuts that could claim the Henry 1 helicopter program, one of Essick’s proposals to fill a $14 million gap in his spending plan.

Friday’s rescue, said Essick, was an indelible reminder “of what these men and women do every day.”

From medical calls to remote rescues, Henry 1 has been “saving lives for 45 years in Sonoma County, and on the North Coast,” Essick added. “It’s an amazing program.”

“We recognize that it is costly. But when you start looking at the big picture, the number of lives that we save versus that cost, I think most people would agree it’s well worth it.”

It’s difficult to know how the Marin firefighters ended up in such a dire spot. Brenton Schneider, spokesman for the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, said neither man was available to be interviewed. Nor would he share their names.

At a Sunday debriefing, Haas had the chance to say hello to the firefighters again.

“It was cool to meet them, and give them a hug,” he said. “And not have it be at the edge of a fire.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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