Flames had encircled them, hundreds of them. They were stranded with no hope of rescue, told instead to wade into the waters of the Mammoth Pool Reservoir and hope the fire would pass them by. But, as their prospects waned, a daring rescue mission was being organized.
Daniel Crouch, who had been trapped with his family behind the lines of a wildfire while on a camping trip, desperately retreated to the protective waters to escape certain death. He floated with his head just above the water's surface, dodging the embers that poured down and trying not to inhale the deadly smoke. His three-year-old grandson clung to a cooler lid nearby.
"It was go underwater, come up, take a breath," he told the New York Times.
Then came the telltale sound of the California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade.
"The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see anything," Crouch told the Times. "But you could hear the blades of the helicopter. That thump-thump-thump of the helicopter out in the distance."
Crouch and the 395 other stranded civilians knew in an instant they had not been forgotten or abandoned. The rotor wash of the National Guard's Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters blared a mighty song of victory, like Joshua at the Battle of Jericho, and the wall of flames surrounding those stranded at the reservoir fell.
"People started cheering," Crouch said.
The ordeal wasn't over yet. The hundreds of stranded civilians could not be lifted away from the fire all at once. The 40th Combat Aviation Brigade—the civilians' only lifeline—would have to fly through the flames again and again.
"Our job was to make sure we landed, and when we did land, I was met with the worst sight of my life," Sgt. George Esquivel, a flight engineer on the Chinook, said in an Army report on the rescue mission. "A lot of people referred to the sight as apocalyptic, and I agree."
"Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire," Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter, said.
Undeterred, the helicopter crews just kept coming back. It was like the Berlin airlift, if West Berlin had been surrounded by literal walls of fire. The crews made three round trips to the reservoir on Sept. 5-6. On Sept. 8, they turned their attention to civilians stranded at China Peak, Lake Edison, and Muir Trail Ranch. The Creek Fire burned about 380,000 acres of California wilderness but thanks to the daring of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade didn't claim a single life.
For the brave soldiers involved, risking it all to save lives is simply what they do.
"I was at my mom’s house in Merced about to jump in a pool to cool off with my son," Esquivel said in the Army report. "I received a text about a rescue mission asking if I wanted to go and I replied yes. I don’t turn down the opportunity to go on rescue missions because it’s what we do."
Goding, pilot Irvin Hernandez, and crew chief Ge Xiong were in the Black Hawk, while Esquivel, pilot-in-command Joseph Rosamond, pilot Brady Hlebain, and flight engineer Cameron Powell manned the Chinook. All of them are heroes. All of them are Washington Free Beacon Men of the Year.