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Heroics In Air and On Ground Saved 4 Firefighters in San Diego’s Backcountry

A week after flames engulfed Southern California, a handful of firefighters are still trying to forget the screams that pushed them to make a heroic rescue.

A week after flames engulfed Southern California, a handful of firefighters are still trying to forget the screams that pushed them to make a heroic rescue.

Flying a small plane about a mile above the U.S.-Mexico border on Oct. 21, a shrill voice pierced Ray Chaney's headset. The air traffic controller looked down helplessly at the sea of flames below.

The desperate call for help crackled on firefighter radio frequencies for miles around, signaling to scores of firefighters that somewhere deep in the smoke the worst had come true.


What they couldn't see but only hear was the horror when a wall of flames overtook four firefighters who were trying to save a man and his son stranded in a hilltop home in the parched border landscape where one of the first fires broke out.

"There was one scream and then a series of them; I really try not to think about it," Chaney said in an interview.

But Chaney, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, did think. Coordinator of the aerial assault on the Harris Fire, he called off incoming tankers loaded with retardant and directed water-dumping helicopters to circle in low to try to spot the victims.

The smoke was so dense the search seemed impossible, but then the voice of the screaming firefighter came back on the line.

"'We're burned over. We have a casualty and burns, we need help," Chaney recalled hearing. Three of the firefighters huddling together in the inferno gave Chaney enough information to direct the helicopters. The fourth firefighter had disappeared, and the others feared he was dead.


The first to spot the victims was Michael Wagstaff, a contract pilot flying a helicopter tanker for the U.S. Forest Service.

What happened next, according to several firefighters who witnessed it, was one of the most heroic acts in a week of many.

With winds, flames and embers swirling around his helicopter, Wagstaff landed on a smoldering patch of scorched ground long enough for the firefighters and the younger civilian to pile on board. Chaney, flying above, put out the call for medical help.

A rendezvous point for the injured was set at what remained of the burned out Potrero fire station off State Route 94.

Firefighter Matt Streck, who had heard the screams and the call for medical help, flagged down paramedics driving two miles away. But to get them to the fire station, he had to lead them down a roadway flanked by walls of flames.

"Just as (Wagstaff) was arriving with the injured, I looked down and saw three or four trucks and the paramedics screeching to a stop in front of the helicopter pad. I felt pretty good," Chaney said.

For those waiting to help, however, the nightmare was just beginning.

"It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life," Streck said. "I knew a couple of these people. We had worked together, and I couldn't recognize them. I've learned this week I wouldn't wish a burn injury on my worst enemy."

One bright spot lifted the mood. As paramedics attended to the three firefighters and waited for a medical evacuation helicopter, the missing fourth man, Andrew Pikop, walked through the door with only moderate burns.

"You could hear everyone howling, it was probably the only thing good that happened that whole day," Streck said. Firefighters from another company had found Pikop. He had survived by deploying an emergency shelter and hiding behind boulders.

The efforts of Wagstaff, Chaney and Streck were the first of dozens to save the lives of the only firefighters to sustain life-threatening injuries during the blazes that scorched over a half-million acres and destroyed more than 2,700 homes and other structures last week. All four are firefighters for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

On Sunday, Pikop and Capt. Raymond Rapue, who was leading the group of four caught in the fire, remained in stable condition at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center burn unit. The names of the two other firefighters were not released. They were placed in drug-induced comas and remained in critical condition Monday.

Of the father and son they were trying to save, the son remained in critical condition at the burn unit. The father, Thomas Varshock, died in the fire.

The four firefighters still hospitalized were honored before the San Diego Chargers took the field Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. Fourteen of their family members, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state fire officials were there. More than 100 other firefighters have sustained minor injuries battling the blazes.

"They are heroes," Ruben Grijalva, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said during a phone interview. "I have heard about the pilot and that it was a heroic effort. I'm sure there are going to be a lot of Medals of Valor that come out of this incident."

Those assembled at Potrero fire station Oct. 21 didn't just save their fellow firefighters.

Eleven more people who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexican border also were treated at the fire station. The Mexican government said Saturday that four of the 11 were in critical condition.

"They just started coming out of the hills. They were all wearing black, nylon jogging suits and you couldn't tell what was burned nylon and what was skin," Streck said.