Lockeford native commands National Guard helicopter in daring rescue in Fresno County

The California Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade includes, from left to right, flight engineer Sgt. Cameron Powell, flight engineer Sgt. George Esquivel, pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Hlebain, and pilot-in-command Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond. (California National Guard/Courtesy)

California Nation Guard Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond could only describe the scene of a fire in the Sierra National Forest as something out of a movie set in a desolate, futuristic wasteland.

“With the red sky, it just has an apocalyptic look,” he said. “There’s just complete destruction. It’s nasty.”

Rosamond is one of the many National Guardsman based out of Stockton to be deployed to the Creek Fire, the massive blaze near Shaver Lake in Fresno County, to rescue stranded residents, hikers and campers.

A native of Lockeford and 1998 graduate of Lodi High School, Rosamond is a crew member on board a CH-47 Chinook that for the past week has been trying to get back into the heart of a blaze being called the worst in California history.

Rosamond and his crew were able to rescue some 200 people from Mammoth Pool Reservoir in three different flights Sept. 5 and 6. However, attempts to rescue another 50 people stranded near Lake Thomas A. Edison have failed due to worsening conditions.

“A lot our evacuation mission has been kind of hindered by all the smoke in the region,” he said. “We keep trying to send up aircraft to get as many people as we can out of there, but we keep having to turn around because of low visibility. We’d love to see this lifted a bit so we can get in and out.”

The Creek Fire began on Sept. 4 northeast of Fresno, and has since grown to 212,744 acres in Fresno and Madera counties. CalFire reported Monday that the blaze was only 10% contained.

On the first night of the evacuation mission, Rosamond said he and his crew could see the fire was growing extremely fast, as the weather pattern in the region was causing walls of smoke to rise from the ground, practically blocking any entry into Mammoth Pool.

He said they flew into an area where an apple orchard was growing, and were able to see an active fire line moving across the ground. A large wall of smoke stood between their Chinook and trapped campers, and the crew had to make a decision whether to proceed.

“When we decided to try to get past (the wall), we found the section where everyone was to actually have less of an active fire than other places in the area,” he said. “But the terrain was just completely black. There were small fires in various places, and it looked like stars in the sky.”

Rosamond has been in the National Guard 23 years and has rescued hikers off cliffs, evacuated Butte County residents from the Oroville Dam break of 2017, and assisted with a variety of small fire fights. However, he said he has never experienced anything remotely close in magnitude to that of the Creek Fire.

“We’ve been trained for each individual operation,” he said. “Brownouts, people movement, rescue efforts. Very rarely do we have a situation where those are put together all at once.”

Since Labor Day, the Guard has attempted to put flights in the air at least twice a day, and each time, crews have had to turn back, Rosamond said.

And while flying into walls of thick, black smoke and extreme heat may seem harrowing, he said everyone involved in the evacuation efforts has remained extremely focused on obtaining their targets and bringing them back alive.

He said the only real fear, once airborne, is what one isn’t seeing, whether it be overlooked campers or high-tension wires.

“You never wish that you have to do something like this,” he said. “The types of people that join organizations like this and do jobs like this, they do it because they want to help the community.”

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