The California Air National Guard routinely helps with search and rescue missions, but the transport of hundreds of campers and hikers stranded in the High Sierra by the Creek Fire has been unparalleled even for seasoned crews.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Hames flew a Black Hawk helicopter on two separate missions Tuesday morning to bring people trapped near Edison Lake and the John Muir Wilderness Area back to Fresno. He and his co-pilot had to climb up to 12,000 feet to get out of the huge pillar of smoke created by the fire. The military veteran has done lots of search and rescues but this one was different, he said.
“As far as this particular scenario where there’s a lot of people needing to be evacuated from an area, this is the first time we’ve ever done something like this,” he said.
He said years of training in aviation means he keeps his cool even in high pressure situations. And he’s grateful he can assist.
“It was just kind of a drive to get out and go and get these people because I know how I would feel if my family was out there,” he said.
Luckily the smoke opened up enough so the helicopter could land both times, he said. The first rescue launched at 8:30 a.m., the second at noon.
Hames helped transport a total of 17 passengers including four children. The kids were happy to have the opportunity to ride in a helicopter, he said. But two dogs were not.
“The dogs weren’t so excited to get into a very loud helicopter but everybody else was pretty much all smiles,” he said.
And when the helicopter landed at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, there were high fives all around.