Monday, February 23, 2015

Who's your hero?

I first met Gary in 1994.  I don't remember much about the fire: it was in Colorado somewhere, and there has been so much smoke, so many flames since then.  My crewmembers, all Native Americans, liked to play tricks on each other.  Gary was amused by them, even when they found peyote growing at the helibase and wanted him to take it home for them in the helicopter.  When it was slow and he didn't need to fly, he walked the local roads for exercise, disappearing into the distance but somehow always knowing when to return. 

That assignment ended, as many do, when it started to snow, but a few years later Gary showed up in Alaska, flying the same helicopter, and came back for several seasons.  We looked forward to seeing Gary in the "Starship," armed with new jokes.  He kind of liked us too, although he kept an eye on us around the helicopter, prompting G. to mutter as we wrestled a 100 pound fresh food box out the door, "this helicopter might be museum quality, but it's not in the museum YET."  We all had Gary stories we liked to tell: remember the time the radio operator wanted him to park farther forward because he couldn't see the helicopter, and how every time after that Gary would park it farther and farther back toward the bushes? Remember how he would dance in front of the other helicopters as they took off, trying to make the other pilots laugh?

After I left Alaska, I lost track of Gary, although occasionally another pilot would mention him.  I heard he was flying a different helicopter, working for a different company.  Then last fall, I heard his name on the radio.  I sat in my truck in a parking lot, listening to an extraordinary story.

In mid-September, Gary was on a helibase in California when an urgent call came over the radio.  There was a crew trapped on the fireline.  They were cut off, surrounded by fire, and in their  shelters, aluminum foil and silica blankets they had pulled over themselves for a last resort.  Like everyone who has ever gotten in one of these, they must have thought these might be their final moments.

Gary got in his yellow helicopter and took off, looking for the crew.  He was asked to pick up a bucket of water on his way, but he refused.  There was no time for that.  He started searching through the smoke and the maze of logging roads to find them.  When he did, he could see they would not survive where they were.  He estimated they had three minutes left.

Over the radio he urged them to get up, get out of their fire shelters and run.  When they did, he told them to run faster, that the fire was catching up.  As the crew ran through a tunnel of fire, he stayed overhead, directing them toward safety.  When they finally made it out of the active fire area, he stayed with them for several miles, showing them the way through brush and game trails to a landing zone.

It was later determined that at the point the fire was burning over the crew, it traveled at the rate of two miles in four minutes, and consumed everything in its path.

Gary has said he was just doing his job.

I know better.  I can't help but think of other firefighters on other fires and other days, dying in their shelters, waiting for help that never came.  Sometimes there is no guardian angel.  That day in September there was.
Gary getting an award for his actions on the King Fire, 2014. Cal Fire photo.



  1. What a wonderful story! You can be proud you worked with such a great man.

    1. I am! He was also featured on CNN's Extraordinary People:

  2. Whew.. I had read about this and it takes my breath every time. Did not know you had a connection. Do hope Gary gets to see your post.

  3. What an amazing story of a hero! What an honor for you to know such a man!

    1. Another part of the story is that the captain of the crew that he helped save had just found out the day before that he and his wife were expecting a little boy.

  4. What a gift for Gary to hear this perspective of him from years past! Sounds like an amazing guy.


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