By Rob Young/Appeal-Democrat
Tired but uninjured after a close call, a team of Yuba-Sutter firefighters came home Thursday after fighting a wildfire and rescuing occupants of a crashed helicopter in the Lassen National Forest.
The strike team, made up of five engines and 18 firefighters from Yuba City, Sutter, East Nicolaus, Pleasant Grove and Linda, left Friday to fight the 3,200-acre Straylor Fire northeast of Redding and south of Fall River Mills, according to Bill Miles, team leader and division chief of the Yuba City Fire Department.
The team was “mopping up” on the fire line about 2 p.m. Monday when a privately owned Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, which was transporting two California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials on a reconnaissance mission, crashed into an unburned area near the Yuba-Sutter team, Miles said.
As the wrecked helicopter leaked fuel, team members and Lassen National Forest crews rescued a passenger whose foot was pinned in the wreckage, another passenger with a back injury, and the pilot, who suffered burns and a fractured sternum, Miles said.
The injured were taken 250 yards up a steep hill to a 300-foot-diameter “safe zone” where the CDF earlier had cleared of trees. Meanwhile, a previously undetected “spot fire” was advancing up the hill, consuming the helicopter and destroying a CDF truck. The fire roared around the edges of the safe zone, Miles said.
After a rescue helicopter was unable to lift all three victims, a second copter was called in. Although flames threatened the copters, they were not damaged, Miles said.
Flames from the spot fire, which eventually burned about 500 acres, scorched paint and melted taillights on three of the fire engines from Yuba-Sutter, but all remained in service, Miles said.
Miles said the CDF strategy of creating safe zones was effective, although flames “came right alongside.”
Yuba City Battalion Chief John Limas, a team member, said that flames reached a height of 75 feet around the safe zone. The fire “sounded like a freight train,” he said.
If the zone had not been there, “there would have been fatalities,” he said.
The Yuba-Sutter team and Lassen National Forest workers were trapped in the zone for about four hours, Battalion Chief Limas said.
“There were high emotions. It was a sobering experience,” he said.
Limas, a 22-year firefighting veteran, said it was “definitely a close call.”
The cause of the helicopter crash is still being investigated, Miles said.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Rob Young can be reached at 749-4710. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.