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Heroic fire rescue in the face of flames

August 31, 2023  By Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald

Ron Berlie of Penticton Search and Rescue took this photo of Topflight helicopter pilot Adam Sloan and rescue team member Norm Cole at the location where they landed while waiting for more detailed coordinates for missing Penticton hiker Bernard Cloutier. Special to the Herald Ron Berlie of Penticton Search and Rescue took this photo of Topflight helicopter pilot Adam Sloan and rescue team member Norm Cole at the location where they landed while waiting for more detailed coordinates for missing Penticton hiker Bernard Cloutier. (Photo: Ron Berlie, Penticton Herald)

Imprisoned by flames from the surrounding wildfire, Bernard Cloutier’s survival rested in the hands of the three men in the helicopter above him.

Coming face to face last week with the Crater Creek wildfire in Cathedral Park, the 66-year-old Penticton man called it, “any hiker’s worst nightmare unfolding in real time.”

An avid outdoorsman, Cloutier was in his final days of a three-week solo adventure through the southern Interior wilderness southwest of Keremeos when he unexpectedly found himself at the fire’s mercy.

“At the end of my trip I am ready to celebrate making it down (Lakeview Mountain) to safety; when looking for shade I found a raging fire. Everything fell apart in a moment,” recalled Cloutier, who left behind a full itinerary of his travel schedule with friends and relatives. “It was a horrifying situation and I’m just blessed to be alive today.


“Me frying into bacon for bears was a clear and imminent danger but my prayers were answered.”

Equipped with a two-way Garmin satellite device, he was able to transmit a cry for help.

That distress call went out to Penticton Search and Rescue and two of its members, Ron Berlie and Norm Cole boarded a chartered Canadian Helicopters/Topflight Elite aircraft at Penticton Regional Airport and headed to the scene.

Immediate concerns were the initial satellite information about the hiker’s exact location was incorrect and the helicopter did not have longline capability, meaning they would have to land in the densely forested area.

After an unsuccessful aerial search of nearly two hours, using up critical fuel, they were eventually able to get the correct coordinates, but it still left the problem of where to land.

“There was nowhere near Bernie where we could set down and it took quite a bit of time to find somewhere,” said Berlie.

“We found a good spot about three kilometres from where he was and then Norm and I left the helicopter and hiked to where he was.”

Running low on fuel at this point, Topflight pilot Adam Sloan returned to Penticton to gas up.

Watching the helicopter leave, in the back of his mind Berlie knew there was a possibility it may not be able to return.

Sloan, Topflight’s chief flight instructor, was able to get back, but had to find another way in because the fire’s advance had closed off the initial route.

“Within that 45 minutes (to get fuel) things had changed quite a bit and when I got back it was quite smoky,” said Sloan, who has been flying for 23 years.

“From beginning to end it changed significantly more than I anticipated, but I never really felt that I couldn’t get back and we (Topflight instructors) work out there a lot, almost a daily basis and I know the area very well.”

Earlier in the mission, when they were hovering over Cloutier in the helicopter, a weighted note was dropped to him with directions where he would find the helicopter.

Those instructions, however, were sending Cloutier towards the Ewart Creek trailhead where the hike began three weeks ago.

It was also in the direction of the fire which Cloutier initially struggled to understand.

“I was very nervous reading that note because ahead of me was the devastation zone. The previous day I saw the fire raging through that area,” said Cloutier, who was on his third trek in Cathedral Park. “I realized if I stay here it’s going to be hell for me and I’m going to burn alive. I cannot recall a time in my life when I was more afraid for my life.”

Meeting the PENSAR members along the trail, the trio began the race against the clock to get to the aircraft before the fire overtook them.

The situation got so critical, at one point Cole took Cloutier’s backpack to expedite their escape.

“Norm insisted on taking my pack along with his own. Can you imagine?,” recalled Cloutier, a gym goer who is in top physical shape. “I said my pack is at least 45 pounds, but he took it and the pace got faster and it’s a good thing because by the time we were ready to take off the fire was a real threat.

“The wind was coming from below and with the raging fire going uphill the fire could have been upon us anytime.”

“The last bit to get to the helicopter was a climb of about 50 minutes up a series of switchbacks and the higher we got, the more we could hear the fire,” said Berlie. “I got the helicopter to start up and we loaded into it while it was running and took off.”

The dense smoke resulted in very limited visibility and while the trip out of the wilderness was not a pleasant one, the experienced Topflight pilot was up to the task, landing everyone safely back in Penticton after a nearly four-hour rescue mission.

“When you put it all together all these guys are heroes,” said Cloutier. “If it wasn’t for their intervention I would be dead. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that they saved my life.

“In the hours that followed my rescue, this whole area was engulfed in flames and the fire quadrupled in size. The wind brought the fire back to where I was and rampaged through my location, it was an inferno and that huge smoke plume that people saw from Kelowna, an absolute horror scene.”

According to Berlie, like any successful rescue this one was a team effort by all involved. He included PENSAR manager Kelvin Hall who was working with him from the Penticton headquarters, relaying critical information.

While his hike turned into a harrowing experience, Cloutier said he has no intentions to stop going on outdoor adventures and even plans to return in October to the place where it all nearly ended.

“When you’re alone in the wilderness you discover what you’re all about,” he said. “We cannot let events overtake our lives and what we live for.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2021


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