Disaster can strike out of the blue in the backcountry. And when it does, preparation can make the difference between life or death.
Justin Gerard experienced that first hand during the Crescent Mountain fire on the Okanagon-Wenatchee National Forest last month.
Gerard said he and his family they won’t soon forget the experience – or their dramatic rescue by a Forest Service helitack (helicopter, fire attack) team.
The Crescent Mountain fire was one of several fires set by a lightning storm on July 29, 2018. The fire was small – less than 10 acres – when the Gerard family set out for Louis Lake on July 31st.
But overnight, conditions changed, producing extreme fire behavior; the fires grew 18 times their size in less than 24 hours.
On Aug. 1, the Gerards were hiking back from their overnight trip to the lake when they realized a smoke column that had been visible over the distant hills was suddenly much closer, and blocking the trail ahead. The family found themselves five miles from safety, surrounded by steep terrain, and with no easy path to escape.
After the fire, the fire’s Incident Command team determined the fire had moved down the mountain and across the trail they were hiking on in less than 40 minutes; too fast for anyone to outrun, especially a family with children and pets. In the days following their rescue, the fire continued to expand, sometimes by more than 4000 acres per day.
Fortunately, the Gerards were well-prepared for a trip to the backcountry. That advance preparation helped the family of six – and their three dogs – escape, without injuries.
But Gerard said he also has some “lessons learned” from the experience that will better prepare him for the possibility of wildland fires and other emergencies during his next wilderness trip.
Question: When you planned your trip, were you aware that there was fire activity in the area?
Answer: “I wasn’t aware in the beginning. Typically we don’t hike in August because of the fires, but we had been trying to hike to Louis Lake for a while. I called the Ranger District before leaving. They informed me about fire activity in the area, but there were no closures for the Lake Louise trail. At that time I think the fires were about 10 acres and had firefighters on them. When we arrived to start our trip there was no smoke that would indicate a fire was close by.”
Q: How do you prepare for outdoor trips? When did you start using a satellite messenger device and do you utilize it regularly?
A: “I have four kids, ranging from age 8 to 18. We decided about three years ago to purchase the device. We thought it was a good thing to have in case of emergencies when out in the woods. Typically, I tell my parents where we are going, what our timelines are, and where we plan to camp. We give an “OK” signal when we start and send out an “OK” when we stop for the night. Sometimes I’ll use the tracking feature. My family and friends can go on the share page and track our movement. I have it programmed to send an alert signal if we haven’t moved in over four hours.”
“Hiking gear can be expensive. When you look at the cost involved of having an emergency beacon, it is relatively inexpensive compared to the peace of mind it brings and safety it provides for your family. It is a good thing to have especially if you are out by yourself.”
“All the kids know how to operate the device, and we always keep it in the same location on my pack. We talk about emergency scenarios with our family so everyone knows their role in case something goes wrong. The more you can prepare yourself for situations in the backcountry, the better you will be. In this case, I learned it is good to have a signal mirror.”
Q: Tell me about what was going through your mind when you realized you and your family were in a dangerous situation?
“We had a great day at the lake fishing and swimming. We got up the next day and had breakfast. I spent the morning tapping up my children’s feet because they were breaking in new boots. We were planning to head out that day. Once we were heading down the trail I looked up and spotted the smoke column. I couldn’t tell how far away the fire was, but knew the wind was blowing in our direction. At that point we decided to turn around. I tried to keep everyone calm. We came up with a plan to return to the scree field.”
“Because we had moved locations and were unsure if the SOS signal was sending our new location, we decided to hit the button again — not realizing that our current location was already being sent. Hitting the button a second time canceled our emergency alert. Fortunately, my emergency contact went to the incident and alerted Forest Service officials that something was wrong.”
“I’ve spoken to numerous people that have SPOT devices (a brand name of emergency locator and messaging devices) and not many of them knew if you press the SOS a second time it cancels your emergency alert. This is very important to know.”
Q: What was it like to interact with firefighters from the helitack crew?
“They were wonderful. Top-notch professionals. They were calm and communicated very clearly with a great attitude. They did their job very well. They offered us food and water. They kept the kids calm while providing good instructions on what we needed to do.”
“There were some conversations about if we would be able to bring the dogs on the helicopter. The crew went above and beyond to allow us to bring our dogs. We were very grateful and appreciative that they trusted us enough to control the dogs on the flight. I would have understood if we had to leave the dogs. We left it up to them to decide. They did a great job being straight-forward during this difficult time.”
Q: What is your advice to others that plan to recreate in remote locations?
“Even if you have a SPOT device, if there is any way to leave additional information for your emergency contacts it will help you out. Leave specific information about your party, medical information, where you are going, and when you will be out. This will help search and rescue find you faster. Just because you hit the SOS button doesn’t mean a helicopter rescue will come right away. You still need to be prepared mentally and have contingency plans to keep yourself safe.”
“Make sure you know where you are going. Call ahead to the Ranger District. Understand if you hike in dry months you need to have situational awareness. There can be lightning storms that quickly ignite fires. Hike at another time when fire danger is lower. We broke our rule of not hiking in August and we got caught.”
While Type 3 firefighting helicopters and crew aren’t normally utilized for rescue operations on incidents, federal employees have flexibility to deviate from SOPs when human lives are at stake.
“We’re grateful that the decision was made to utilize the helicopter to get us out,” Gerard said. “People that have the ability to think on their feet and the experience to make sound decisions were vital to helping us. They took a risk for us and we think they should be recognized for their efforts.”
What went right?
- The Gerards were aware that it is fire season. They checked fire weather and with a Ranger station, to help them make a decision about whether it was OK to hike. They knew the area and were able to quickly make a new plan and escape to safer terrain.
- The 10 essentials. The family was well prepared for a backcountry trip, including warm, dry clothing, food, and camping gear, in case they’d had to shelter in place overnight. They also carried an emergency locator, which all family members were trained to operate.
- The family had trip plan and a designated emergency contact who followed their progress, and was prepared to seek help.
What went wrong?
- Conditions can change quickly – in this case, overnight. While you can’t plan for everything, consider the worst-case scenario before deciding how much risk you are prepared to tolerate.
- Know your gear. Although the Gerards were careful to ensure all family members were trained to send a distress signal using their emergency beacon, they inadvertently cancelled their first distress call when they tried to send a second request after changing their location. Justin Gerard said he is reaching out to friends who rely on similar devices to share his lessons learned in case they ever find themselves in a similar situation.
Source information: Evan Burks, White Mountain National Forest (on fire assignment in support of the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region Fire & Aviation office). Photos provided by Justin Gerard.