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.
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.