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Thu, Nov 01, 2007

Helo Pilot Praised For Heroic Rescue Of SoCal Firefighters

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 teen.

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, immediately.

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 home.

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 secure.

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.

FMI: www.fire.ca.gov, www.kachinaaviation.com

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