Calif. helicopter pilot modest about saving fire crew

By Tony Manolatos
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Mike Wagstaff flew his helicopter into blinding smoke to look for four firefighters and a teenage boy who were badly burned.

Eventually, Wagstaff would rescue the entire crew and the boy, whose father was killed in the fire. But he said he doesn't feel like a hero.

"Not really. No," Wagstaff said in an interview Tuesday. "A lot of people do, and I'm grateful to that. But I was just doing my job."

A wave of heroic tales is starting to surface as more firefighters emerge from the smoke and flames that killed seven people and destroyed about 1,400 homes across San Diego County.

In his first public interview, Wagstaff, 48, shared his story while standing before his helicopter at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. He wore sunglasses and a tan pilot jumpsuit.

Wagstaff and his crew arrived at the Harris Fire about 20 minutes after it started on Sunday, Oct. 21, near the U.S.-Mexican border in Potrero. The seven firefighters flying with Wagstaff quickly starting digging containment lines after he dropped them off near the origin of the fire.

Wagstaff is a contract pilot with the U.S. Forest Service who works for Kachina Aviation. This is his third fire season in San Diego County, where he works from May through November from the Ramona Air Attack Base.

With his crew on the ground, Wagstaff started picking up water from nearby ponds and dropping it on flames, brush and homes. The Santa Ana winds were fierce, but Wagstaff has 23 years of experience fighting wildfires from the sky. He was concerned, mostly because of the winds, but he was busy, calm.

It was just after noon when Cal Fire Chief Ray Chaney, the air commander above the Harris Fire, pulled Wagstaff and another helicopter pilot off the fire.

"Ahhhh! Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh!" is what Chaney said he heard on his radio from the firefighters on the ground.

"They were these very short bursts," Chaney recalled. "Just this primal scream."

Chaney cut off communications with everyone other than the Cal Fire captain on the ground, Ray Rapue, Wagstaff and the other pilot.

Chaney quickly briefed the pilots: There was a burn over. There were injuries, at least one fatality. One firefighter was missing. The pilots need to find and rescue four firefighters and one civilian immediately.

Wagstaff figured the people he was looking for were just behind the head of the fire. So that's where he went.

The smoke was thick and dark, but Wagstaff moved forward. He heard Rapue radio him. The captain could hear Wagstaff's helicopter.

"I was delighted," Wagstaff said.

Seconds later, Rapue said he could see the copter. Wagstaff saw a firefighter in a yellow jacket. He told Rapue to wave, and the man in the jacket did.

Wagstaff inched closer to the ground, but a thick cloud of smoke was approaching the front of his helicopter. So Wagstaff pulled up and moved to a clearing. He moved back as soon as the smoke passed.

Rapue radioed him. The captain said he didn't have his whole crew.

"That's OK," Wagstaff said. "We'll come in and we'll get as many people as we can out of there."

He landed and seconds later, everyone but Andrew Pikop and Thomas Varshock boarded the aircraft. Varshock died while trying to save his Potrero home with his 15-year-old son, Richard, who was now with Wagstaff.

"They all walked on," Wagstaff said. "They were all helping each other."

After everyone was on board, Wagstaff looked to make sure the door was shut, and then he took off. He said the entire rescue, from the time he got the call until he took off, took about two minutes.

Chaney directed him to a Cal Fire station about a half-mile away.

After dropping off the firefighters and the teenager, Wagstaff was up in the air again looking for Pikop, the fourth firefighter.

Wagstaff returned to the same spot and made radio contact with Cal Fire Capt. Carl Schwettmann Jr.

Schwettmann, who was in a white Cal Fire pickup truck, found Pikop. He rushed him to the helicopter, helped him get in and slammed the door. Minutes later, Pikop was reunited with his crew.

The firefighters and Varshock were airlifted to UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. They were admitted to the burn unit at 1:30 p.m.

Two of the four firefighters, whose names have not been released, remain in critical condition, as does Richard Varshock.

Pikop shares a room with Rapue. Each spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune Friday from their hospital beds. Both remain in fair condition and are recovering from burns.

After the rescues, Wagstaff immediately went back to work. He dropped water on the Harris Fire until 6 p.m.

He hasn't seen any of the people he rescued. He's still fighting the fires. But, he said, he's made a point to get daily updates on their conditions from fire officials.

Copyright 2007 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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