BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
KEENE -- As wild forest fires raged around them, the crew from the Kern County Fire Department's Helicopter 407 lifted injured firefighters to safety and medical help in less than an hour, a feat that earned them an honor from the U.S. Forest Service.
At a ceremony Monday at the Keene Helibase, the Forest Service awarded the fire department for its aid during two August wildfires in Northern California. The helicopter crew performed three separate rescues, each in less than an hour, a time the Forest Service said is unprecedented.
Of the crews' quick responses, Yolanda Saldana, aviation safety manager for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region, said, "Maybe you are used to that here, but that never happens for us."
At about 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 during the Reading Fire, the crew hoisted a victim of a heat related injury from 200 feet in the air with active burning in tall timber nearby. The rescue took less than 40 minutes. The Reading Fire lasted about a month and burned through 28,079 acres in the Lassen National Forest.
At about 11:20 a.m. Aug. 19 during the Chips Fire, the crew hoisted a victim of a possible broken ankle from 230 feet in the air. There was low visibility at the time and wet conditions from a nearby waterfall. The rescue took about 30 minutes. The Chips Fire lasted about a month and burned 75,431 in the Plumas and Lassen national forests.
At about 10 a.m. Aug 20 also during the Chips Fire, the crew hoisted a victim of head and neck injury from a falling tree. The victim was lifted from the bed of a truck and was already strapped to a backboard. The rescue took about 20 minutes.
Chris Castaneda, foreman crew boss, was the rescuer at the Reading Fire. He was lowered from the helicopter to the victim to prepare the victim for extraction. The rescue was right on the edge of the fire.
Castaneda put the victim in what's called a screamer suit, a hammock with arm holes, as he described it. The victim was hoisted up, and Castaneda was left on the ground to wait for the helicopter to return from taking the patient to get care.
In addition to the fire, there are plenty of hazards during a hoist rescue. There's smoke, 150- to 250-foot trees, other aircraft and tall power lines, Castaneda said. The crew also has to make sure the helicopter is high enough so that its blades don't kick up the fire.
Despite the hazards, the helicopter's crew is ready for them, Castaneda said. The key is intense training.
"We did drills in the middle of the night to get people's minds prepared," he said. "We trained mercilessly."
Capt. Danny Solis said people on the helicopter crew undergo hundreds of hours of training. For him, the proof the training works is after the missions when the crew talks about it.
"At some of the briefings, the guys say 'Wow that was just like what we trained for,'" Solis said.
Chief Pilot Pat Williams said the crews also did recon on the fire every few days to map it and see what hazards would arise.
For Williams, one of the rewards of the rescues was knowing it helped firefighters on the ground go into areas of the fire they otherwise might not have.
"This is the best job in the world," he said.