(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 additional outbreaks.
“We could see pretty well this huge, three-mile and growing line of fire coming toward 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 toward eight cars blocked by a fallen tree, while Gavitte stayed at the helm. There were far too many people to fly in a single trip: on the first flight, a husband parted with his 7-year-old son, wife and her parents when there was no room left on board, Lowe said.
The wife brought her belongings onto the helicopter; Gavitte threw them off. The husband meanwhile sought safety at a nearby reservoir, thinking he might be a goner, Lowe said. He was later rescued.
“A lot of people didn’t think we were coming back because the fire was that close,” added Lowe. One woman had tears in her eyes when she parted from her family.
But the helicopters returned for them. They ultimately rescued 42 people, five dogs and a cat - including a 94-year-old woman dressed in a hospital gown whom Lowe had to carry from her car, he said.
Within hours, the area known as Atlas was in flames, with homes and vineyards incinerated.
Shaun Bouyea, a CHP air operations public information officer, said the helicopters made about 20 trips, which became slower and bumpier as conditions deteriorated.
“I’d tell them, ‘sit down, sit on the floor, it’s going to be bumpy,'” Gavitte said.
There was little talk on board. Some took photos of the fire as they soared overhead.
“I’ve never been shaken so much in a helicopter in six years of flying with the highway patrol,” said Lowe, 35.
Those rescued were first taken to a Napa fire station, and when that became too dangerous later in the night, the landing site shifted to a local hospital.
Lowe said the helicopters dropped people off and departed again in just 45 seconds as they raced to get everyone off the burning hills. Among the later rescues was a group of six vineyard workers who spoke no English, Lowe recounted.
Atlas, an unincorporated area in Napa County, was hard hit. 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 Lowe and Gavitte encountered who refused to be rescued. These people 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