Flew Into The Fire To Pull Five Away From Flames
Don't call him a hero. Mike Wagstaff says he was "just doing my
job" when he flew his helicopter into blinding smoke from the
California wildfires, to rescue four firefighters and an injured
Wagstaff, a US Forest Service contract pilot employed by Kachina
Aviation, was dispatched to the Harris Fire near the US-Mexico
border October 21. He dropped off a crew of seven firefighters to
dig containment lines, and then started picking up water from a
nearby pond to drop on the flames.
Things were bad enough on scene, as Wagstaff flew his helo
through the fierce winds caused by the raging fire... but just
after noon, the conditions turned hellish.
Wagstaff and another helicopter pilot were pulled off the fire
by CalFIRE Chief Ray Chaney, who described calls from firefighters
trapped by the flames.
"Ahhhh! Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh!" is what Chaney says he heard from the
trapped personnel, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They were
these very short bursts," he added. "Just this primal scream."
The condition is called a burn over... which is exactly what it
sounds like. According to Chaney, there was a firefighter
missing... injuries... and at least one fatality. The pilots were
to find and rescue four firefighters, and one civilian,
Wagstaff correctly theorized the missing people were just behind
the head of the fire. As he flew into the thick smoke, he heard
radio calls from ground Captain Ray Rapue... who told Wagstaff he
could hear his helicopter approaching.
"I was delighted," Wagstaff said.
The two established visual contact a short time later. He
couldn't approach the firefighters' position, though, due to the
smoke... so he flew to a clearing until it passed, and returned to
retrieve the personnel.
Rapue told him he didn't have his full crew. "That's OK,"
Wagstaff said. "We'll come in and we'll get as many people as we
can out of there."
Four people were able to walk onboard the helicopter. Among
those Wagstaff rescued was 15-year-old Richard Varshock... whose
father, Thomas, died while trying to protect their Potrero, CA
One firefighter, Andrew Pikop, was still missing when Wagstaff
dropped off his passengers at a CalFIRE station about a half-mile
from the fire line. He took off again as soon as the door was
Wagstaff returned to the same spot as before, and made radio
contact with CalFIRE Capt. Carl Schwettmann Jr., who had found
Pikop. He helped Pikop into the helicopter, and gave Wagstaff the
signal to take off. Minutes later, Pikop was at the station.
The five people Wagstaff rescued were taken to the burn unit at
UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. Two of the four firefighters --
whose names haven't been released -- are still in critical
condition, as is Richard Varshock.
Wagstaff hasn't been able to visit the people he rescued; he's
still fighting the wildfires. But he has made a point to get daily
updates on their conditions.