Helicopter rescue in the High Sierra: Inside the mission to save hundreds of people trapped by the Creek Fire – San Francisco Chronicle

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Night fell as Joe Rosamond throttled his helicopter forward, tracing the edge of a wildfire that had overtaken Sierra National Forest. He raced toward the hundreds of people trapped within the inferno.

The Creek Fire had devoured tens of thousands of acres in only a few hours, toppling oak and pine trees onto the curvy, single-lane road leading up the mountain to Mammoth Pool Reservoir. More than 360 people and 16 dogs found themselves trapped near Wagner’s General Store, along the lake.

They clustered on the beach, some wading into the cool water, as flames encircled the 8-mile-long reservoir, surging closer. They faced the prospect of burning alive — unless Rosamond’s chopper could reach them in time.

It was Labor Day weekend, and the popular outdoors destination northeast of Fresno had been packed. Bounded by two national parks and spanning 1.3 million acres, the forest drew a mix of hikers, campers and boaters every summer, particularly on holidays and especially since the pandemic hit. By Saturday evening, the number of revelers was at “Fourth of July levels,” the Madera County sheriff said.

The Creek Fire, which ignited northeast of Shaver Lake the previous day, had already forced the evacuation of two campgrounds. Then, on Saturday afternoon, the blaze exploded. Flames ripped across the drought-stricken slopes of the Sierra Nevada, devastated by a bark beetle infestation that had killed 32 million trees between 2010 and 2017.

A firefighter douses roaring flames from the Creek Fire as the blaze pushes toward homes in Madera County’s Cascadel Woods area. The Creek Fire was devouring acreage as it also raced toward Mammoth Pool Reservoir, where 360 people were trapped.

(Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images | San Francisco Chronicle)

An ashy plume of black smoke punched 50,000 feet through the air, creating a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, or what NASA scientists call the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” They say it may have been the biggest ever on U.S. soil.

Fire season has just begun, but a record 3 million acres have already burned in California. By Friday, 19 people had died. Smoke has smothered huge portions of the state and left the sky in San Francisco tinged in science-fiction sepia.

The Creek Fire doesn’t rank among the top of the state’s largest wildfires on record, a grim leaderboard now changing by the week. But the blaze’s raw violence and speed outpaced evacuation alerts and caught thousands of people unaware, ambushing them on hiking trails, backcountry campsites and recreational lakes.

For many, escape wasn’t possible, not without help.

Cal Fire ground crews had tried and failed to reach Mammoth Pool. A California Highway Patrol helicopter couldn’t navigate through the smoky skies. That’s when the military helicopters, with special sensors, showed up. One of them was piloted by Rosamond, a 40-year-old military veteran with the California Army National Guard.

Rosamond had already heard the radio reports of broken bones and burns as people fled the wildfires. He knew that he and his crew needed to act fast. They wanted to evacuate people — not carry away body bags.

A Blackhawk followed behind his Chinook helicopter, their rotors thumping as they chopped through the darkness. Rosamond snapped on his night-vision goggles, casting the landscape in green. He couldn’t see farther than a half-mile out. The haze obscured even the moonlight.

The burning forest would have to light the way.


The coronavirus pandemic had left Lorinda Pardi feeling adrift. The 50-year-old didn’t want to sit around her Clovis (Fresno County) home. She wanted balance and nature, and so she decided to take up backpacking.

She had long loved hiking, snapping photos and selling her landscape prints as a hobby. But overnight backpacking was a first. Standing at 5 feet 4, Pardi weighed 124 pounds without her plum red backpack on. The extra weight from her camera gear, combined with her 30 pounds of camping equipment, made her maiden trip a heavy schlep.

In the past six months, though, Pardi had managed to hike 150 miles by herself. She felt proud of her progress.

With the encouragement of a new friend from Florida, whom she’d met on a Facebook group, Pardi decided to tackle the High Sierra, just south of Yosemite National Park. The women departed together at the start of Labor Day weekend. By Saturday night, they had hiked 15 miles to reach Marie Lake, off the John Muir Trail in the famed Ansel Adams Wilderness. At 10,500 feet, the alpine lake was nestled among the rugged cathedral towers that once inspired naturalists including Muir and Adams.

The situation at Mammoth Pool was devolving as Pardi and her friend reached their campsite that evening. Firefighters on the ground couldn’t get to the hundreds of people trapped there. At 6:46 p.m., a Madera County firefighter called in about the spiraling situation: “We have reports of injuries there. We need to get those people out.”

But Pardi, without cell phone service, was unaware of the danger. As she set up her tent, she watched the sun sink on the horizon. Brilliant red, pink and purple hues streaked the sky. She thought it might have been the most beautiful sunset she had ever seen.

Left: People exit a Chinook helicopter after being rescued from the Creek Fire. Right: Military helicopters fly rescue operations to and from Mammoth Pool Reservoir to save hundreds who were trapped there. Photo: Photos By Joe Rosamond

Left: People exit a Chinook helicopter after being rescued from the Creek Fire. Right: Military helicopters fly rescue operations to and from Mammoth Pool Reservoir to save hundreds who were trapped there.

(Photos By Joe Rosamond | San Francisco Chronicle)

Maybe too beautiful, she said later. The colors had been intensified by wildfire smoke and particulate matter — a warning of what was to come.


Rosamond pushed the Chinook forward through the smoke, navigating from ridgetop to ridgetop, as he tried to keep his bearings in the 16-ton, heavy-lift helicopter. He couldn’t make out the electrical wires that latticed the mountains — but this was an aircraft designed for warfare. With the use of delicate military sensors, he was able to continue safely.

His radio chattered again. In the choking smoke, the Blackhawk pilot who had been tailing him had lost sight of Rosamond’s Chinook and turned back, hoping to find a safer route.

This was a dangerous mission. The call to the California National Guard had gone out five hours earlier, around 3:15 p.m. — and only after every other ground attempt to evacuate Mammoth Pool had been exhausted. While the force is routinely summoned for search-and-rescue operations in the state, none has ever looked quite like this.

That afternoon, an exasperated Madera County firefighter had reported that an attempt to use a California Highway Patrol helicopter for a rescue hadn’t been successful. Wind speeds had picked up too much, whipping the wildfire into a frenzy. “We couldn’t do it,” he said over the radio.

At the same time, an airplane mapping the Creek Fire for ground crews bailed and was diverted to a wildfire burning in San Bernardino County — ignited by a couple who had used pyrotechnics for a gender reveal video — because of the dangerous air conditions. Across the state, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had announced plans to cut power to prevent igniting a wildfire for the first time this year, catalyzed by the same winds that were now grounding aircraft.

“We’re unable to get close enough,” the surveillance pilot had said. “It’s making significant runs and severe fire behavior is being observed out there.”

At 6:58 p.m., a Creek Fire operations commander called off the air rescue: “At this time it’s negative to be able to fly into that area, too much smoke.”

The National Guard helicopters — one piloted by Rosamond — were already on their way. At about 7:40 p.m., he called Cal Fire commanders over the radio, asking how soon firefighters would be able to reach the scene. Their response: “It may take hours.” Crews would first have to cut their way in through fallen trees and spray down flames.

About 20 minutes later, Rosamond spotted the Mammoth Pool Reservoir dam. He circled the lake, searching for a landing place. Embers whipped through the air, and stands of pines torched like candles. The Wagner General Store, a 6-decade-old institution, had already burned down along with six cabins. The flashing hazard lights of all-terrain and recreational vehicles and campers pointed him to the beach.

People had gathered along the low-tide line, as close to the water as possible. He landed the Chinook atop the boat ramp. The rotor kicked up so much ash, dirt and sand that he couldn’t see through the windshield. It reminded him of landings he had done during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Flight engineers in camouflage passed out bottled water and loaded the injured, along with women and children, into the back of the helicopter. As Rosamond surveyed the scene, he noticed multiple burn victims and some people with broken bones. He called for ambulances to meet the Chinook at the airport in Fresno.

Then, a family caught his eye. A young mother held hands with her two small children as they settled into the aircraft. They were dressed in light summer clothing. They reminded Rosamond of his own kids: Lucas, 5, and Gianna, 10. He was supposed to have taken them swimming that day for the holiday.

“It was heart-wrenching,” he later said. “I felt it all the way to my soul — the scared looks on their faces, just thinking about how I would feel if my children were in that position.”

About 60 more people packed into the seats. Startled, Rosamond realized that earlier estimates had been inaccurate. There were 30 families — not 30 people — seeking refuge at the lake and in need of rescue. Hundreds more than he had known.

Hikers Rob Bruns (left) and Henri Laborde Jr. on Red Mountain as the sun sets behind smoke.

(Robert Shaffer | San Francisco Chronicle)

The Chinook would have to return.


Nearly 250 miles away in Berkeley, Johanna McCloy reviewed the X’s on a printed topography map that her husband had given her three days earlier. The markings indicated where Henri Laborde Jr. and his two friends had planned to camp each night on their annual weeklong backpacking trip.

Before departing the Bay Area, the three had been worried about smoke from the Castle Fire, roaring to the south in Tulare County. But now, Laborde’s wife was concerned about the triple-digit heat wave and the newly ignited wildfires. She logged onto Cal Fire’s website, hoping to take a quick glance at the 20 large blazes burning across the state to set her mind at ease.

“Boom,” she recalled. “Fire over Shaver Lake. And huge already!”

The blaze was the second-largest recorded in the Sierra Nevada, outranked only by the 2013 Rim Fire, which scorched more than 250,000 acres. McCloy could see that flames were already overwhelming the dirt roads her husband would need to traverse to leave the High Sierra. She read news reports, Twitter feeds and evacuation announcements. She called ranger stations that had been abandoned due to dense smoke or the coronavirus.

The phone just kept ringing.

Meanwhile, her husband and his two friends were halfway through their adventure and in high spirits. It was the 25th consecutive year they had left behind their cell phones and wound off-trail with only a compass and a map to guide them. Laborde, 59, liked to “get away from everybody.” They had spent Saturday evening at Heather Lake, as scheduled.

Henri Laborde Jr., 59, is at home with his wife Johanna McCloy, 55, in Berkeley. Laborde was backpacking with two friends in the Sierra National Forest a few days ago when he had to be rescued from the Creek Fire by Chinook helicopter in the early morning hours Photo: Alison Yin / Special To The Chronicle

Henri Laborde Jr., 59, is at home with his wife Johanna McCloy, 55, in Berkeley. Laborde was backpacking with two friends in the Sierra National Forest a few days ago when he had to be rescued from the Creek Fire by Chinook helicopter in the early morning hours

(Alison Yin / Special To The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Then, as they crested a ridge along Red Mountain, they spotted a massive mushroom cloud in the distance. From 10,000 feet in elevation, they marveled at the dark column of smoke as it unfurled in the distance. A fat thunderhead rippled atop the wide column.

They had no idea what was going on — but Laborde had a feeling that their trip was about to end early.


Rosamond landed in Fresno with the first round of evacuees. He stayed only as long as it took to refuel, then whirred back into the wildfire. He approached from the east and circled over Huntington Reservoir, waiting for the Blackhawk to pick up a load of passengers, before touching down onto the boat ramp again. The surface of the lake roiled, thick with ash and debris.

The flight engineers gestured at people to climb inside. Nearly immediately, they lost count of how many had boarded. About 30 to 33 soldiers in full combat gear can normally fit in a Chinook, but it was standing room only in the back of the helicopter. Campers filled every inch of space, with duffel bags or children in their laps. The aircraft was so heavy with passengers that it added 10 minutes to their flight time.

“We used up every bit of skill that we’ve learned for high altitude and heavy flying,” Rosamond said. “We had to take the longer way back. We needed more time to climb above the mountains.”

It was only after landing in Fresno that they were able to do a proper count. There were 102 people crammed onboard.

On his third, and final, return trip to Mammoth Pool, Rosamond crept along the back edge of the blaze, steering toward the reservoir from the north. For hours, he had watched the line of fire ripple in the blackness, progressing farther and farther as the night continued. A familiar phrase came to mind: How do you eat an elephant? There was only one answer: One bite at a time.

By now, it was nearly 2 a.m. The remaining passengers were mostly men, who had sent their families to safety first, along with others who had heard the thump-thump-thump of the helicopter rotors and raced toward the boat dock from the other side of the lake. The crew loaded up the passengers and returned to the safety of the valley.

Left: Lorinda Pardi (left) and Jennifer Larson hiking on Bear Creek Trail. Right: Pardi snapped a photo of the Creek Fire burning alongside Highway 168 as her convoy drove past Shaver Lake. Photo: Photos By Lorinda Pardi

Left: Lorinda Pardi (left) and Jennifer Larson hiking on Bear Creek Trail. Right: Pardi snapped a photo of the Creek Fire burning alongside Highway 168 as her convoy drove past Shaver Lake.

(Photos By Lorinda Pardi | San Francisco Chronicle)

The helicopter erupted in cheers as Rosamond descended into Fresno, the city lights twinkling beneath them like a million flickering fireflies.


But for hundreds of other hikers and backpackers, the danger was far from over. The wildfire that would grow to more than 196,000 acres by Saturday was still burning, chewing through the parched forestland.

Neither Pardi nor her friend knew that a massive wildfire had hit, nor that Mammoth Pool had been evacuated with military aircraft — though the miraculous rescue was dominating headlines across the state. They still didn’t have cell service.

But they awoke on Sunday morning to a layer of ash frosting their tents. They booked it downhill, backtracking to Pardi’s car at Bear Creek Trailhead. As they drove off the mountain, the skies were tie-dyed red and blue — the colors sickly and bruised — as they darkened to pitch black. Pardi and her friend hadn’t gone far when a Fresno County sheriff’s deputy diverted them into the parking lot of China Peak Mountain Resort, a popular mountain biking spot in the summer. About 50 cars clumped together on the cement.

Soon they were in a conga-line of vehicles led by a deputy. They inched down Highway 168, past Shaver Lake, as flames licked along the roadside. She cranked the air conditioner to stay cool.

“Feeling the heat …,” Pardi later said, trailing off. “You never know what could happen.”

Left: First sighting of a giant smoke cloud from ridgeline on Red Mountain on Sept. 5, the third day of Henri Laborde Jr.’s hiking trip. Right: Laborde takes a selfie with others packed into a Chinook helicopter after the National Guard rescued them from Edison lake on Sept. 8. Photo: Robert Shaffer And Henri Laborde Jr.

Left: First sighting of a giant smoke cloud from ridgeline on Red Mountain on Sept. 5, the third day of Henri Laborde Jr.’s hiking trip. Right: Laborde takes a selfie with others packed into a Chinook helicopter after the National Guard rescued them from Edison lake on Sept. 8.

(Robert Shaffer And Henri Laborde Jr. | San Francisco Chronicle)

Pardi calls herself a “tree-hugger.” She meditates. Being outdoors is spiritual for her. As she descended into the Central Valley, Pardi stopped for a Farmer Boys burger and thought about the chaotic 24 hours. “Mother Earth will take care of herself, but it’s all gone,” she said. “My grandkids won’t see what we got to see.”


It was a 7-mile cross-country hike back to Florence Lake for Laborde and his buddies. After hitching a ride on a ferry across the alpine lake, a deputy greeted them. For the first time, they learned of the Creek Fire.

In two cars, they rumbled down the notoriously rough Kaiser Pass Road with an escort. About 20 other vehicles followed amid thick smoke. They arrived at Edison Lake on Monday and were told to pitch tents by the Vermilion Valley Resort, a well-known rest and refuel lodge used by weary Pacific Crest Trail backpackers. Another helicopter rescue was under way, but likely wouldn’t arrive until the next morning.

They planned by sound — a police siren meant that the helicopter had arrived and they would need to quickly pack and hop onboard. An air siren meant that the fire had arrived first, with only moments to run to the lake’s edge for survival.

At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, a hovering Blackhawk helicopter jarred them awake. It scooped up four groups of hikers on consecutive trips. At 8:30 a.m., Laborde and his friends, along with about 50 men, women and dogs, piled into another Chinook helicopter. As they took off, they watched the High Sierra vanish through the rear hatch, almost obscured by a wall of smoke.

As his friend steered their rental car home on Tuesday, Laborde realized they needed to rethink their annual trips. The group had preferred late August or early September, to take advantage of fewer people and fewer bugs, along with cooler days and the sight of fall colors. But perhaps it would be better to get out of the woods earlier, before the heart of fire season.

The California he knew had changed.

Lizzie Johnson and Matthias Gafni and San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn, @mgafni


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