Two of our own have been awarded the 2010 Governor’s Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor. Deputies Gary Kneeshaw and Scott Bligh were honored for their actions on August 21, 2010. The ceremony took place Wednesday, September 14 at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
On August 21, 2010, shortly after 1:00 p.m., ASTREA was asked to assist on the ‘Monte Fire’. The fire was at the east end of El Monte Road, in Lakeside, and would eventually burn approximately 1,000 acres.
While en route to the fire, the Sheriff’s Communications Center advised ASTREA 1, piloted by Deputies Kneeshaw and Bligh, they had received a cell phone call from two rock climbers in the area, who believed they were in danger and needed immediate rescue. A cursory search for the climbers yielded no results, until a request was made of the GPS coordinates from the climbers’ cell phone company. After flying to these coordinates, ASTREA located the two climbers, however, due to their location, the fire aircraft was not a viable option for rescuing them due to the steep rocky terrain.
Due to the rocky south face of El Cajon the pilots realized they would not be able to land anywhere near the climbers and the only option for their rescue was through a ‘toe-in’ maneuver.
During their initial ‘toe-in’ Deputy Kneeshaw estimated the flames were between 50 and 75 yards downhill and burning toward them. Initially, the crew planned to load both climbers into the aircraft, but due to the steep drop-off under the aircraft and the winds that they were fighting, the plan was aborted. Only one of the climbers could safely be loaded onto the ship. Deputy Kneeshaw then stayed behind with the second climber and awaited ASTREA’s return.
While waiting, the wind created from the fire was becoming stronger and 15-foot flames approached within 20 feet of their location. Deputy Kneeshaw and the climber began moving laterally along the slope away from the rapidly advancing flame front.
As Deputy Bligh flew back into the area, all Deputy Kneeshaw could see through the dense smoke was the landing light on the aircraft. With the wind continuing to bounce the aircraft around, Deputy Bligh was barely able to maneuver the ship into the toe-in position. As Deputy Kneeshaw loaded the climber into the front seat, he realized the flames were now within 10 feet of the tail rotor. Deputy Kneeshaw climbed onto the helicopter skid and yelled to Deputy Bligh to liftoff.
With embers blowing throughout the aircraft cockpit, Deputy Bligh flew through and eventually out of the smoke and down to the valley floor with Deputy Kneeshaw standing on the skid for the entire flight.
“The courage these deputies evidenced during this operation goes beyond remarkable,” said Sheriff Bill Gore. “We often take for granted the miraculous life-saving flights these pilots make on a frequent basis. They do so without thinking twice about their own safety and with great humility. I am honored to know them personally and have them as deputies on our department.”