Alta Live: Rescue in the Trinity Alps

Meet the leader of an extraordinary rescue effort that saved the lives of two California firefighters.

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This Alta Live was an expansion on “Miracle on the Mountain,” Julian Smith’s article for Alta about a four-person Coast Guard rescue team called inland to retrieve two injured firefighters in the Trinity Alps—at night, as a wildfire blazed around them. The leader of the team and the main pilot, Lieutenant Commander Derek Schramel had never flown a helicopter in a fire before. “It was definitely one of those flights where I was a little nervous about my ability to get everybody back safe,” Schramel told Alta Live. The rescue, which lasted hours and was detailed by Smith in the latest issue of Alta, required the team to turn around and exit the area to refuel, leading to questions about whether the mission could continue. “I was doubting that, once we landed to get gas, that our commanding officer would give us the green light to take back off,” Schramel said. “But luckily, we had a pretty good plan because we saw what we were dealing with.”

Owing to their skill and willingness, the Coast Guard team succeeded in rescuing both injured firefighters in this “high risk, high gain” mission. As a result, Schramel and his copilot received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the U.S. military’s highest aviation award for heroism in flight. The need for such search and rescue missions, and the heroes who lead them, could become much more obvious as fires continue to increase in California. “We’re getting more and more fires, and they’re getting bigger and bigger. There’s going to be more and more people caught in them every year,” Smith said. “We’re going to need help.”

Check out these links to some of the topics Schramel, Smith, and Spotswood brought up this week.

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