National Guard Pilot Recounts Harrowing Rescue of 214 Campers Trapped by Fire

September 10, 2020Joshua Skovlund
california national guard

Rosamond’s chinook coming in to land during the rescue. Photo courtesy of the California National Guard.

The California National Guard (CNG) has rescued 373 people and 27 animals — including 16 dogs — as of Tuesday night, according to Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma of the California National Guard. The CNG has been actively engaged with firefighting operations as well as various other operations related to the wildfires currently ravaging the West Coast.

National Guard aircrews made three daring flights Sunday, rescuing 214 people with an MH-47F Chinook helicopter and a UH-60M Black Hawk that night.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond — a 23-year-veteran of the Guard — was the pilot in command of the Chinook. He told Coffee or Die his crew received word that several campers were trapped at a campsite by the Mammoth Pool Reservoir located along the San Joaquin River within California’s Sierra National Forest.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond’s Chinook helicopter on the tarmac in Fresno, California. Photo courtesy of the California National Guard.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of planning,” Rosamond said. “It was a lot of, ‘Hey, there’s people here; let’s go.’ We kind of made the plan as we were going.”

Rosamond and his crew flew out of the Air Force Reserve base in Stockton, California. As they approached the area surrounding Mammoth Pool Reservoir, there was a brief period of confusion. The crew received conflicting reports of where the campers were trapped.

After ensuring their airspace was clear, the crews received orders to fly to the reservoir and search for the campers. They made their move into the ember-and-smoke-filled area, navigating through extreme conditions.

They maneuvered their Chinook around a large “smoke wall” and found a route to the reservoir through a less-active fire area. Though it was better than flying through a solid wall of smoke, visibility was still low.

“We could see the fire and the embers and everything burning all around the entire lake,” he said. “The entire lake had been overrun by the fire.”

The aircrew located the campers next to the lake thanks to flashing hazard lights on vehicles. They identified the best location for a landing zone (LZ), which was less than ideal. The aircraft nearly maxed out their front rotor clearance due to the incline of the boat ramp area. The front rotors were only a few feet from hitting the ground as the helicopters landed.

Rosamond was impressed with the level of cooperation from the campers. He said they had already prioritized the critically wounded, women and children to be flown out first, and the Chinook was flying at max load capacity.

california national guard
This picture was taken on their second return trip from the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, Rosamond said; this was the heaviest of the three trips. Photo courtesy of the California National Guard.

“When I started hearing numbers in the back of how many people they had on board each time — and I’m talking extremely full, like numbers that nobody’s ever seen before — for a while I was kind of worried we weren’t going to have enough time to get everybody out,” Rosamond said.

They completed three flights to pull the trapped campers out, changing their approach each time to deal with dropping temperatures and shifting smoke.

“It was extremely fulfilling,” Rosamond said about rescuing so many people. “When you join the Guard, you join to help your community, and things like this are exactly what we do. This is why we’re here.”

Both Rosamond’s aircrew and the Black Hawk’s aircrew carried out everyone except two people. Those two campers refused the air rescue and chose to stay behind. Their status was unknown at the time of publication.

Rosamond said this mission wouldn’t have been possible without his fellow pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Hlebain, and flight engineers Sgt. George Esquivel and Sgt. Cameron Powell. He highlighted the support of his family and the rest of the Guard members’ families. He said his wife is at home “running the show” while he is away, and she provides critical support for his service in the Guard.

“Our families make just as much of a sacrifice,” Rosamond said.

Cal Guard’s Task Force Axe hand crew teams cut and clear flammable materials along the CZU Lightning Complex Fire near Santa Cruz, California, on Sept. 3, 2020. Hand crews construct fire lines around wildfires to contain and control them by removing fuel that fires need to spread. Photo courtesy of the California National Guard/Master Sgt. Joseph Prouse.

The California National Guard has been actively engaged with widespread wildfires since June. Their capabilities have greatly assisted the civilian sector’s response to the wildfires with fire suppression as well as search and rescue operations.

“Those were the right aircraft, with the right crew, with the right experience at the right time for that incident,” Adjutant Gen. David Baldwin of the California National Guard told Coffee or Die. “I don’t think civilian crews would have had the capability to get in there. Those aircraft are so capable, and the technology the crews have enable them to see better. So they’re able to see through the smoke and see the embers burning to see where the ridgelines were, which is what enabled them to get in.”

Baldwin said that this year’s fire season is the worst one yet in terms of burned acreage. Approximately 2.2 million acres have burned in California, according to Cal Fire. The previous year with the most damage was 2018 with a reported burned acreage of approximately 2 million, according to a Cal Fire report.

There are 200 CNG hand crews ready year-round with an additional 400 soldiers that are trained as hand crews from various battalions within the CNG, Baldwin said. These hand crews work directly on the ground to complete fire suppression by attempting to extinguish the fire as well as preventing it from spreading.

In addition to the troops on the ground, the CNG has three MQ9 Reaper drones that are constantly conducting damage assessments as well as mapping fire locations.

“That’s the most we’ve flown at any given time,” Baldwin said. “We pioneered the use of large, unmanned systems in California. Nobody else has ever done that before, and we started doing it in 2013.”

california national guard
The Black Hawk National Guard crew landing to unload the campers rescued from Mammoth Pool Reservoir. Photo courtesy of the California National Guard.

The CNG has an additional edge that helps local, state, and federal agencies’ provide a unified response to wildfires. They have an analyst team working year-round to monitor their satellite system and detect fires before they grow and become a problem.

“We’re able to spot fire detection that’s usually before someone calls 911 and get fire guys on it to put the fires out before they become big problems,” Baldwin said.

The CNG has been actively engaged with civil disturbances, COVID-19 pandemic assistance, and widespread wildfires within the state. According to Baldwin, they have continued their normal deployment cycles in addition to their domestic operations.

Out of 20,000 California national guardsmen, anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 are deployed overseas in support of the various operations underway, Baldwin said. One of their Black Hawk units is currently preparing for a deployment.

Two hundred CNG soldiers are conducting full-time counterdrug missions, with approximately 80 missions completed per day. They also run and maintain six different military high schools, West Coast ballistic missile defense, border patrol, and air control alert and intercept missions.

“With 40 million people, some of those people are going to do something dumb and need the National Guard to come bail them out,” Baldwin said. “And we do that all the time.”

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. He went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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