California National Guard rescues its own from Creek Fire

A woman and two children were the first to exit a California Army National Guard helicopter after escaping the Creek Fire Sept. 8, 2020, smiling knowing they were safe from the firestorm that was blistering Fresno County.

Behind them, a group of nine hikers exited the aircraft. A few hours earlier, the hikers had been on the verge of finishing an annual outing, a tradition they started 19 years ago. But for the first time in all those years, they were finishing the outing by climbing off a UH-60 Black Hawk sweating in smoke-tainted clothes.

California Guardsman Staff Sgt. Chris Lapomardo was one of the nine. Good friend Andrew Marquez, a former Cal Guardsman, was part of the group. The team disembarked, planted feet on asphalt, and passed each other high fives and hugs. Literally, they were home. They’ve walked this landing zone a gazillion times during their normal jobs. This Cal Guard facility had never been more welcoming than on this particular day.

“Miraculous,” said California Army National Guard Master Sgt. Matt Caporossi, summing up the effort it took to get these hikers off Muir Trail Ranch in Lakeshore, California. “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

“Relief,” added Chris McCraw, a contracted technician who played an important role in the team’s return. “The stars aligned that day just to get them out.”

The Creek Fire — one of the state’s largest blazes this year — snuck up on hikers, campers and residents in the Sierra National Forest after igniting Sept. 4. Four days later, the fire had charred roughly 140,000 acres. Hundreds of people were trapped as the rapid-burning fire easily shredded areas around Shaver Lake, China Peak and Lake Thomas Edison. Friends and family lost track of this team as cellphone signals failed.

Lapomardo, a helicopter technician with the Cal Guard’s 1106th Theater Aviation Support Maintenance Group (TASMG), and Marquez — a civilian contractor who spent years assigned to the 1106th — weren’t in the most devastated areas. But they were still trapped with their friends, and without sufficient communication.

Back at the 1106th, Caporossi got word of the fast-spreading fire and decided on a unit personnel check. The full-time quality management representative, and part-time platoon sergeant, was able to reach everyone under his domain — except one.

“It all started when command asked for 100 percent accountability,” said Caporossi. “Lapomardo is one of my Soldiers. We were unable to contact him. We got word that he was camping up there, so things became a little more urgent.”

Caporossi knew of Lapomardo’s close friendship with McCraw, who also works at the 1106th as a civilian helicopter inspector. So he inquired of Lapomardo’s location.

“Chris’s brother, Jason McCraw, was in the group that (Lapomardo) went camping with,” Caporossi added. “He was very worried because nobody had heard anything. None of their wives had contact with any of them.”

The connection Marquez, Jason McCraw and a few others in the group have is they’re civilian contractors who work at Fresno’s aviation facility near the 1106th hangar. They’re practically walking distance to Lapomardo and Chris McCraw’s work areas. But on this day, they were on a Pacific Crest Trail mountaintop.

Cal Guard aviators were summoned to rescue trapped people in the early morning of Sept. 6. Several missions were very daring; landing areas weren’t adequate, and smoke hampered visibility to where pilots and crew members wore night vision goggles to navigate. But as the Cal Guard successfully evacuated hundreds, Marquez and Lapomardo were still stranded in another location. And it wasn’t until two days later, after the Cal Guard’s initial rescue operations, when the unaccounted hikers finally were able to make contact.

“We were up hiking and a ranger told us to bounce down to Muir Trail Ranch. We were roughly about six miles away. So we went down there and a rancher told us, ‘If you guys need to contact your loved ones, shoot them an email,’” Marquez explained. “That was my intention. We were just letting our families know that we were safe and not to worry about us.”

An email.

Marquez sent it to his wife, Cynthia, who was at her Fresno home. But prior to getting the email, the 1106th declared that Lapomardo was missing.

“Our commander determined that we need to file a missing person report so we can get a tasker to go find these people,” Caporossi explained. “In between that, Andrew’s wife sent an email. The email confirmed where they were, so we had a solid location at that time.”

“Next thing I know, she responds with, ‘Hey, they’re sending you a Black Hawk,’” Marquez laughed.

Caporossi expedited the recovery process. He went over to flight operations — a few offices down the hall — and began coordinating a plan.

“I told them we have a Soldier on the ground. We have brothers with him. I know exactly where they are. They’re at this area,” said Caporossi, tapping a table. “Then it all just kicked into gear. The rescue pilots got up and drew total focus and interest where they were. They brought out a map, they looked for landing zones, Capt. Gentry immediately got on the radio and called the sheriff. He told them we got men on the ground, we know exactly where they are and we need authorization. So he gave us verbal authorization to launch.”

Pilots and crew members already started heading out the door before the sheriff responded.

“I’m telling you, within five or 10 minutes the aircraft was in the air,” Caporossi said. “Just like that. Boom, boom, boom, boom. It was awesome.”

“Chris McCraw and Cap were huge parts of getting us back,” Marquez stated. “They were the ones coordinating this.”

“We were fortunate that the smoke wasn’t in the landing zone,” Chris McCraw added. “The pilots could see the LZ and get in there. I know those guys, but I didn’t know how many people were there. And I know these guys would have given up their seats first for anybody else. But when I saw them land, it was surreal. When they got off, it was a good feeling.”

Within two hours after departing, the Black Hawk returned with everyone. Just two hours, mission accomplished. Lives saved, friends and family accounted for. Everyone commended Cal Guard assets — from the administrators, mechanics and fuelers, to the helicopter crew members and pilots — and the families for the quick coordinated effort. But they also attributed key information: the email. Cynthia took a screen shot of her husband’s email and texted to Chris McCraw. McCraw then sent it to Caporossi who got the process rolling.

“She responded twice. But when said they’re sending me a Black Hawk. I thought, first of all, how do you know that? You’re at home,” Marquez laughed again. “But then I realized she’s talking to Chris. She was actually talking to everyone.”

“Once we got that hard email information, we were able to react,” Caporossi said. “At first we just had a general understanding of where they may be. But how can you search a wilderness with just a general understanding? That email was key. It was big.”

What’s symbolic of this rescue mission as well is, in one way or another, they’re all associated with Fresno-based helicopters. Aside from being close friends, they’re mechanics, inspectors and more. The aircraft that saved them could probably be one they’ve worked on at some point in their careers.

“It kind of gives you a different perspective on what we do,” explained Marquez. “I’ve been on plenty of fire missions when I was enlisted. I never thought I would be on the other end of it, being the one who has to be saved.”

“I’ve been in the Guard for 12 years as an aircraft mechanic,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Mendez, who had rushed up to Marquez and bear hugged him at the flight line. “Sometimes it gets repetitive, but it’s an important job. But when stuff like this happens, you get a real boost to fight again. Everyone had a hand in this. It all trickles down. It was a team effort and when you see rescues like that happen, where one of our own is rescued, it all comes together.”

“With these group of guys, this trip has been going on for 20 years,” Chris McCraw. “We’ve never had a wildfire like this. We’ve struggled through the drought and things like that up there, but not a wildfire of this magnitude.”

Andrew Marquez, right, a former California Army National Guard helicopter mechanic, watches as a Cal Guard-UH-60 Black Hawk crew member directs people aboard the aircraft on Sept. 8, 2020, at Muir Trail Ranch in Lakeshore, California. Marquez and his 9-member team were among nearly 400 people trapped by the Creek Fire in Fresno County, California, but were rescued by Cal Guard aviators. The Creek Fire is one of the state’s largest wildfires this year. It ignited Sept. 4 and engulfed nearly 180,000 acres in about a week. Cal Guardsman Staff Sgt. Chris Lapomardo was among the team as well. The hikers were unaccounted for for a few days but made it to this designated safety zone intact. (Photo provided by Andrew Marquez)
Andrew Marquez, right, a former California Army National Guard helicopter mechanic, watches as a Cal Guard-UH-60 Black Hawk crew member directs people aboard the aircraft on Sept. 8, 2020, at Muir Trail Ranch in Lakeshore, California. Marquez and his 9-member team were among nearly 400 people trapped by the Creek Fire in Fresno County, California, but were rescued by Cal Guard aviators. The Creek Fire is one of the state’s largest wildfires this year. It ignited Sept. 4 and engulfed nearly 180,000 acres in about a week. Cal Guardsman Staff Sgt. Chris Lapomardo was among the team as well. The hikers were unaccounted for for a few days but made it to this designated safety zone intact. (Photo provided by Andrew Marquez)

The article above by Staff Sgt. Edward Siguenza and the photo provided by Andrew Marquez were released through the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.