(Reuters) - Helicopter pilot Pete Gavitte peered through his night vision goggles late Sunday as he approached a fast-growing wildfire near the California wine country town of Napa and instantly knew there was trouble ahead.
“We saw that it was actually really large, looked like a nuke had gone off or something,” said Gavitte, an 18-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol.
As sirens blared from his helicopter, residents were grabbing their belongings and jumping into their cars to head down Atlas Peak Road, the only way out of the rural community.
But unbeknownst to those on the ground, flames would soon engulf the road, with downed trees and power poles blocking any exit. Over the next few days, the raging fires would kill at least 21 people and destroy 3,500 homes and businesses. Strong, dry winds are expected to fan new outbreaks in coming days.
“We could see pretty well this huge, three-mile and growing line of fire coming towards all these folks that probably couldn’t see it,” Gavitte said. He shined his searchlight on drivers to get their attention and prompt them to stop.
Gavitte, 49, and his first officer and paramedic Whitney Lowe soon landed near a vineyard to begin what would become an extraordinary seven-hour rescue operation, conducted through the night by two helicopters in winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour (113 km per hour).
Lowe ran down a hill from the helicopter to begin corralling people, while Gavitte stayed at the helm. Those ultimately rescued ranged from a child to a 94-year-old woman that Lowe carried from car to helicopter, according to Lowe and Shaun Bouyea, a CHP air operations public information officer.
Some of those saved had just left their homes, while others were working in the area’s vineyards. Some were driving straight for the flames. Many at first resisted boarding the choppers and leaving everything behind, but were soon persuaded.
Within hours, the area known as Atlas was in flames, with homes and vineyards incinerated. But 42 people, five dogs and a cat were saved in the aerial rescue.
Bouyea said the helicopters made about 20 trips, which became slower and bumpier as conditions deteriorated. In one case, a husband parted with his son, wife and her parents when there was no room left on board, Lowe said. The helicopter saved the man on another trip.
“I’d tell them, ‘sit down, sit on the floor, it’s going to be bumpy,’” Gavitte said.
There was little talk otherwise.
Gavitte had to throw the belongings of the wife off the aircraft despite her insistence, because space and safety would not allow it.
“The conditions Sunday night were out of the ordinary,” Gavitte said. “The gusts were pretty bad. That kind of tossed the helicopter around a lot.”
Atlas, an unincorporated area in Napa County, was among the most devastated. A 30-minute drive from the posh shops of the wine country capital, the area is rural, lacks cell phone service and houses many who are elderly.
“I’m almost 70, and I was the youngster,” said Ritchie Sumner, who used to live in the community. His sister’s house burned down in the fire while she was safe in another town, he said.
Even in the extreme conditions Sunday night, there were some Gavitte encountered who refused to be rescued. They said they had their own escape plans. Though it is possible the second helicopter evacuated them, Gavitte never learned their fate.
On Monday, Gavitte finally headed home for sleep.
“I woke up and took a Tylenol and had a bowl of comfort ice cream,” he said. “It was pretty stressful.”
Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco, Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Marc Vartabedian in Santa Rosa, California; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Lisa Shumaker