SACRAMENTO (AP) — Four California Highway Patrol officers who flew through hurricane-force winds to rescue dozens of residents trapped by a wildfire north of Napa last year were awarded the state’s highest law enforcement honor Monday.
“There’s a lot of people who thought they were going to die that night. Thankfully, we were able to be there and make a difference,” recalled Officer Whitney Lowe, a flight officer on one of two helicopters.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra awarded them medals of valor, along with a Yuba County sheriff’s deputy who rescued two wounded deputies while wearing shorts and a polo shirt but no bulletproof vest.
The four CHP officers were flying in two helicopters about 10 p.m. Oct. 8, 2017, when 14 large wildfires began ripping through wine country and other areas of Northern California, forcing an estimated 20,000 people to evacuate.
Lowe and pilot Pete Gavitte were responding to one of numerous terrified calls for help but arrived too late — fire had already consumed the home. They spotted a line of vehicles trapped by downed trees and powerlines while trying to flee “a towering wall of flames more than a mile long,” said Lew Stone, chairman of the medal of valor review board.
“There was only one way out at this point — it was on the helicopter,” Lowe said in an interview after the awards ceremony.
Gavitte landed nearby despite what Lowe described as hurricane-force winds. The pair made three trips, carrying trapped motorists to safety four at a time, then found another pocket of trapped residents and lifted them out, too. They also called in a second helicopter, with pilot Chad Millward and flight officer Phil Agdeppa aboard.
“It’s basically turning into a firestorm. It’s just consuming everything in its path,” Millward said in an interview.
He said he’s flown innumerable rescue missions and assisted in many fires but “none were as precarious as this situation because it was so fast-moving and there were so many people trapped.”
Together the crews rescued 41 people, along with four dogs and one cat. Forty-four people died during the October fires, but none from the fire where the two crews responded.
“Forty-one lives were saved from certain death,” Stone said in announcing the honor.
Medal of valor recipients are recommended annually by a review board representing law enforcement unions. There were 41 nominations this year from 10 incidents, and the final five were unanimously recommended to Becerra and then chosen by Brown for acts of extraordinary valor beyond the call of duty.
“We need these examples of heroism to teach us how we’re supposed to act,” Brown said.
Yuba County Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Harris said he was unprepared on Aug. 1, 2017, when he helped two fellow deputies chasing an armed suspect from an illegal marijuana farm. He was working with the department’s marine unit and preparing to change the tires on a boat trailer when he responded to the call.
He was guarding the back of a house when the suspect shot deputies Phillip Bronson and Andrew Everhart three times each through a closed door. They returned fire and killed the suspect, but Harris didn’t know that as he helped Everhart flee and dragged Bronson to safety.
“I realized that I was grossly undressed,” Harris said of not wearing his bulletproof vest. “Then I went in anyway.”
The two deputies were flown to a hospital and are still recovering.