The helicopter rescue happened at night in unfamiliar territory during a brief lull between strong winter storms.
And for the Orange County Fire Authority, it set a record: eight people — two of them on the verge of severe hypothermia — extracted during a single incident.
An OCFA official called the Jan. 22 rescue of two hikers and extraction of six CAL FIRE firefighters in rugged terrain on the Santa Rosa Plateau above Murrieta “daring,” and praised the professionalism of the crew on the agency’s Helicopter 1, a Bell 412ep — a Huey — for the successful mission.
“The patients, their families and CAL FIRE were very appreciative of their efforts, and the OCFA and I are proud of each and every one of them,” said Battalion Chief Craig Covey, program manager of OCFA Air Operations.
A STORMY NIGHT
The call came in at 9:35 p.m. on Sunday, Jan 22 during a respite in the third of three storms that hammered Orange County and the region with inches of rain.
Light rain still was falling when the emergency call went out concerning two hikers who were extremely cold and wet and on the verge of severe hypothermia, with only light jackets for protection.
The male hikers, both 23, were stuck on an outcropping and stranded by two rivers that were overflowing with water.
Six CAL FIRE Riverside swift-water rescuers had been dispatched to find them, but after a few hours of hiking through thick vegetation and steep terrain they had not been able to reach them.
The OCFA flight crew — Pilot Karim Slate, crew chief Capt. Robert Bucho, Firefighter Paramedic Rescuer Andy Bailey and Technical Rescuer Firefighter Tyler Johnson — performed a risk assessment before heading out into the rain and heavy winds with night-vision goggles.
Once in the area of the provided GPS coordinates, they were able to find the hikers after the hikers flashed the lights on their cell phones.
With the OCFA helicopter hovering from about 125 feet, the rescuers plucked the two hikers to safety and transported them to Inland Valley Medical Center.
Then, with the next storm rapidly approaching, the OCFA rescuers searched for the six CAL FIRE firefighters.
“It didn’t make sense to leave them out there to get hammered by another severe weather event,” Covey said.
The OCFA crew found the firefighters, who were flashing their head lamps, about one mile from where the stranded hikers had been pulled to safety.
The incident marked the most hoist rescues conducted in a single mission in the 22- year history of OCFA Air Operations, which has performed hundreds of rescues, Covey said.