ON NOVEMBER 9, 2018, Pilots Dave Nordquist and Joel Smith were operating Helicopter Fire 4, flying water dropping missions near the border of Los Angeles and Ventura County. It was the second day of the Woolsey Fire, which was raging out of control, burning thousands of acres and hundreds of homes despite all efforts of ground and air resources from multiple fire agencies.
After completing what should have been their final water drop before refueling, Nordquist and Smith received the radio call for an urgent rescue. Civilians were trapped in the Santa Monica Mountains at Castro Peak, and flames were rapidly approaching their location. Extreme fire activity prevented ground resources from accessing the area and air extraction remained the only option for rescue. Typically, rescues involve additional crew members beyond just two pilots, plus additional rescue equipment. Nordquist and Smith contemplated returning to the heli-spot to retrieve a hoist and other equipment, but time was of the essence. Fire 4 was the only nearby aircraft capable of accommodating the evacuees. The two pilots knew that if they did not respond immediately, the chances of another crew extracting the civilians were slim.
Nordquist and Smith arrived quickly on scene and surveyed a spot to land. Their ideal landing area was obstructed by vehicles and construction equipment. High winds made maneuvering near the repeater antennas dangerous. Nordquist pulled Fire 4 back out while Smith identified another safe landing area. Smith located a nearby dirt patch on the ridgeline. Terrain and wind conditions made it impossible for Fire 4 to fully set down. As Nordquist made his descent, he kept the aircraft at pitch, barley resting the wheels on the ground. Low on fuel and facing extreme heat and wind conditions, Nordquist held Fire 4 in position while Smith exited to find the stranded civilians. Smith made his way to the top of the peak and encountered the first civilian – a woman and her dog. She stated that there were two others and another large dog trailing close behind. Smith located the remaining evacuees and ushered them to the helicopter as fire rapidly consumed the hillside. Fire 4 flew the three civilian and two canine evacuees to a heli-spot and turned them over to ground crews for further evaluation. Norquist and Smith then refueled and resumed their firefighting water drops. For their quick thinking and rescuing of the three civilians and their dogs, the two LAFD pilots were awarded Medal of Merits. Congratulations to you both and Godspeed.