Facing the Fire
October 13, 2021 By Kendra Kincade
417 Squadron shares a rescue from British Columbia wildfires
Provincial and territorial authorities are the first to respond when a major natural disaster occurs in Canada. If they need help, they can ask the Canadian Armed Forces to come to the rescue. When the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) respond to such a crisis, it is known as Operation LENTUS. But what happens when the CAF is responding to a natural disaster, such as a massive and powerful wildfire, and they themselves need rescuing? Whose job is that? They call in the search and rescue helicopter.
I sat down with Capt Andrew Johnson from the 417 Combat Support Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta, to talk about his latest Op LENTUS experience with the fires out in British Columbia this past summer.
The 417 Squadron was called to British Columbia to assist provincial wildfire services and military personnel with airborne medical evacuation, and search and rescue, for the people fighting the fires. While deployed, they were also able to conduct daily training missions in the local area to expand their proficiency within mountain terrain, a valuable asset coming from Cold Lake, Alberta. The crews appreciate quite days with no calls, which means nobody is in trouble. As the sun was setting one evening, the crew of Capt Andrew Johnson, Capt Matt Rowe, Sailor First Class Andrew Clevland, and Corporal Andre-Luc Dube (439 Sqn Bagotville, Quebec) arrived back at their hotel, ready to call it a night, when suddenly the phone rang. They need to go back – people are trapped in the fire and need evacuation immediately.
Back at the base, the crew climbs into its red and yellow Griffon helicopter (which to me is akin to the horse that a knight and shining armour would ride), don their Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), and bring up the advanced software on their iPads that will help them navigate through the black, smoke-filled sky. “The iPad with Foreflight worked incredible with the hazard advisement on there,” Capt Johnson explains. “The technology we fly with now is incredible. I don’t think we could have done it without it.”
Armed with the small bit of information they were given, which amounted to a grid of latitudes and longitudes where they suspected the call came from, and that there were approximately six people caught in the fire, they set out with fierce determination – and perhaps a little excitement – that they were going to perform a rescue. This mission is what they spend hours and hours training for. They were ready.
The crew navigated their way through the dark night, engulfed in smoke and flames rising as high as 200 feet in the air. Their NVGs allowed them to make out shapes, just enough to keep them going on the mission. Finally, they see movement. They can see homes through the flames. Capt Johnson is flying and finds an area large enough to land the helicopter. “It was absolute mayhem,” he explains. “Trucks with lights on driving around like crazy with water tanks in the back, embers falling down on the helicopter, smoke and flames absolutely everywhere. Fire 100 yards from the houses. There were six to seven people surrounded by fire trying to save their land.”
Sailor First Class Cleveland jumps form the helicopter and runs over to talk to the men and let them know help has arrived. They would be rescued. Capt Johnson waits in the helicopter to be ready to lift the full load up and out of the flames. But he is surprised to receive a radio call back from Sailor First Class Cleveland announcing the men won’t leave.
“While we were flying through the smoke, we were just thinking the whole time that we were going to save these people,” Capt Johnson explains. “We were so excited to find them and land – we are there to save them. It was a real eye-opener… They just didn’t want to go.
“We called for orders and were told to do all we could and then get to safety. We made sure there was nobody willing to be rescued and, after doing everything we could to get the men out, we had to leave,” he continues. “We flew around the area searching for anyone else who may have been out there and wanted to get out, but we couldn’t find anyone.” A little defeated, they returned home.
When I asked if they ever found out what happened to the men they had tried to rescue, Capt Johnson replies, “The best advice I received was that I would do myself a favour if I don’t look into it.”
I asked Capt Johnson if he considered himself to be brave, flying through terrifying conditions, putting his life at risk to save others. “In Cold Lake, we train for these situations. During the operation, we were ready. We train for it. We felt confident. We were talking through the entire operation keeping an eye on the deteriorating weather, talking about our location, talking about the minimums.” Then with a gentle smile on his face, showing the passion for his work, Capt Johnson says, “It’s probably one the spiciest things that I have ever done – the most exciting for sure.” | H