The team had already crawled into foil-lined personal fire
shelters - a survival measure of last resort - before they were
spotted by the pilot as columns of fire raced up a canyon at them,
igniting whole trees along the way.
The incident, which came close to becoming the deadliest California
firefighting tragedy in nearly five decades and recalled the loss of
19 firemen in Arizona last year, unfolded on the third day of the
so-called King Fire near Lake Tahoe.
"We had three minutes to get them out of there," pilot Gary Dahlen
said. "A wall of fire was coming up the hill ... It was a firestorm.
There was so much heat and so much flame, it was just exploding, and
it was moving quite rapidly."
Guided by Dahlen as he hovered overhead and radioed directions to
the ground, the firefighters left their shelters and dashed up a
logging road to a patch of brush out of the fire's immediate path.
The group, including 10 prison inmates trained to fight wildfires,
ultimately hiked miles farther to a larger clearing where the
helicopter and a second chopper could land.
The blaze, more than 90 percent contained by Wednesday, has charred
at least 150 square miles (389 sq km) of drought-parched timber,
destroyed 12 homes and forced thousands to evacuate at the height of
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire,
swiftly began a "near miss review" of the Sept. 15 incident, but the
story was not widely reported at first.
Dahlen, who received a U.S. Forest Service award for his role in
saving the ground crew, told Reuters he had been making water drops
on the blaze earlier that day and was on a refueling break when the
distress call came in.
The 12 men, working with hand tools and a bulldozer, had become
abruptly trapped as flames from a deep ravine below roared up the
slope and closed in on their position.
'YOU'VE GOT TO RUN'
Waiting for air support after transmitting his team's coordinates,
"the seconds seemed like hours," crew captain Kevin Fleming said,
recalling the anxious moments before he heard the distinct clatter
of a helicopter above him.
Dahlen, 60, a Forest Service contract pilot, reached the scene to
find the team huddled in their shelters, on the verge of being
overrun. He could see their protective foil bags would not withstand
the intensity of the advancing flames.
[to top of second column]
Radioing Fleming on the ground, Dahlen told him the men had no
choice but to make a run for it.
"'You only have 200 yards (183 meters) to go and you'll be safe, but
you've got to run because the fire's coming,'" Dahlen recounted
Fleming, 32, in a separate interview, said his crew ended up
sprinting at least twice that far, with burning tree limbs and
embers raining all around as they followed Dahlen's low-hovering
yellow chopper through dense smoke to a small clearing.
"With fire over the top of us the whole time, we were right on the
cusp of not making it," but the team got there, Fleming said. Still
largely surrounded by fire, the group had to retreat another 4 miles
to the chopper landing zone in a large meadow.
When Fleming and his team arrived, the crew captain asked Dahlen,
"'Were you the guy flying the yellow helicopter?' and I said, 'Yes,'
and he threw his arms around me and gave me a great big bear hug,"
"I hugged him back, and I said something to him like, 'You're the
luckiest sons of bitches on the face of the Earth,' and he said, 'I
know it.'" None of the crew was seriously hurt.
Both men said the extent of devastation found later at the rescue
scene - a blackened bulldozer, melted chainsaws and backpacks,
spruce trees 10 stories tall burned to a crisp - left no doubt how
close the 12 firefighters had come to disaster.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gareth Jones)
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