CAL FIRE Division Chief Jim Wright was awarded the medal of valor for driving through the Valley Fire burn area to retrieve four entrapped firefighters last September.
When the blaze broke out, Wright wasn’t on duty. But he lives in the area, so he went out and started helping evacuate houses in the path of the blaze.
When he heard that half a helicopter crew was caught in the firestorm and had to deploy emergency fire shelters near a metal building, he made his way to the location. He jumped in his truck, picked up the other half of the crew and began navigating the treacherous, smoke-filled roads to rescue the four firefighters.
“The smoke was the worst part, in that we couldn’t see the road,” says Wright. “We were kind of navigating through trees to know where the road was. Eventually, the smoke cleared up and we could see the firefighters in their fire shelters, that was a relief because we knew they were OK at that point.”
All four firefighters received second and third-degree burns. Once Wright and the other firefighters arrived they got injured crew members into the truck and took them back to meet the helicopter.
“It turned out that I was in the right place at the right time because I live in the area and I knew the area," says Wright. "When it came over the radio they’d deployed their shelters near a metal building I recognized their location, so I was able to know which fork in the road to take to get them."
Wright received CAL FIRE's medal of Valor at a ceremony Tuesday along with seven other firefighters. He says the honor is bittersweet.
“I’m honored, but I still remember that in order for me to get an award, somebody had to get hurt and that doesn’t sit well," he says. "It’s unfortunate that I got an award in that sense.”
He says residents can help prevent these types of awards by making sure homes are surrounded by a fire-safe environment with plenty of defensible space.