Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rescue from above: Firefighters in Wine Country fires save lives, homes from the sky

When the wildfire started on top of Atlas Peak in Napa, several residents found themselves in a harrowing situation — the flames were getting closer, but downed trees and power lines blocked the road and made it impossible for them to escape.

That’s when an angel in the form of a Super Huey helicopter came to the rescue.

Cal Fire Capt. James Robbins and his crew, in their 1970s-era helicopter — a veteran of the Vietnam War — swooped in last Monday morning and landed nearby. They hiked up to the homes in the 5000 block of Atlas Peak Road, where the distress call originated, and found a husband and wife and their two dogs. Then they used the couple’s car to press on, checking for more evacuees. That’s when they found three more people desperate to get out — an elderly couple and a younger woman.

The team loaded the people and dogs into their Super Huey and a second helicopter provided by the California Highway Patrol, and dropped them safely off at a shelter set up at Solano County Community College.

The count of people reported missing in the fires is already too high, Robbins said.

“Any time we can take that number and change it by grabbing people and taking them out of harm’s way, it’s a good feeling,” he said.

Along with the firefighters on the ground, Cal Fire has dozens of aircraft battling the blaze from the sky — everything from small helicopters that douse the flames with a few hundred gallons of water at a time, to a massive 747 that holds nearly 20,000 gallons of bright-pink fire-retardant. The aircraft work along a fire’s edge, dropping water and retardant to slow the blaze enough so that firefighters on the ground can dig trenches and clear brush to form a line that will stop the flames from spreading.

Helicopters also shuttle teams of firefighters to the fire line, execute daring air rescues and perform reconnaissance missions — flying above the fire-swept landscape to gather intel on the blaze’s size, location and the direction it’s moving, to help ground crews plan their route of attack. It’s a key part of the strategy in a firefight where steep terrain and limited resources have made it difficult to quickly deploy enough firefighters on the ground.

But aircraft don’t pose a perfect solution. In high winds like the North Bay has been experiencing this past week, fire-retardant blows away after it’s dropped, instead of smothering the flames as intended. And on Wednesday, smoke blew so thick into Robbins’ base at Angwin Airport in Napa County that all aircraft were grounded for several hours — forcing them to sit helpless on the ground, unable to aid the firefighters on the front lines.

For Robbins and his pilot, Todd Hudson, the firefight is personal. Both are locals, and are normally based out of Boggs Mountain Helitack Base, just north of Calistoga.

In the helicopter last Monday, there wasn’t much quiet time to exchange names, phone numbers or even thank yous, so Robbins doesn’t know what became of his charges after he spirited them away to safety. But that air rescue was a bright spot at the start of what shaped up to be a long and grueling assignment for Robbins and his crew.

Robbins worked all night Oct. 8 fighting the Sulfur fire in Lake County, finally returning to Angwin Airport around 6 a.m. the next day. Almost as soon as he landed, he got the call about the families stranded on Atlas Peak — stretching his day into a 36-hour marathon.

Firefighters are supposed to work 24-hour shifts, followed by 24 hours off duty, but with resources stretched thin across multiple fires, some have been forced to work 60 or even 96 hours at a time.

“There’s so many miles of open line,” Robbins said. “The resources are spread so thin, that there’s nobody there to do it.”

That makes it that much harder to fight these fires, especially in a high-risk situation like making a water drop from a helicopter. While flying just 100 feet off the ground, the pilot has to look out for trees and power lines that seem to disappear against a smoke-filled sky.

“Everybody’s trying to stay awake and not lose focus on our mission,” Robbins said, “and make sure everyone’s safe.”

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.mercurynews.com

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