Who you gonna call when things go bad? Two recent incidents at Yosemite National Park—a daring waterfall rescue and a building on fire—offer a glimpse at the variety of challenges faced by park employees somewhere in the country almost any day of the year.
Most present-day visitors to parks take the availability of prompt and professional emergency services for granted, often forgetting that many parks are in remote locations with limited staffing and equipment. If you're going to have a problem, it might as well be in Yosemite Valley, where one of the busiest locations in the National Park System is also among the best-equipped for emergencies.
That still doesn't make it easy, however, and the fire and rescue capabilities in and around Yosemite Valley were put to the test in recent days, as illustrated by the following accounts from park reports.
On the afternoon of August 5th, park dispatch received a 911 call from a visitor at Bridalveil Falls reporting that a 16-year-old boy had fallen 30 to 40 feet and was unconscious. A number of visitors had seen him scrambling on the large boulders below the falls, then slip off the face of one of them and out of their view.
Rangers, an ambulance and a Search and Rescue (SAR) carryout team responded. An air ambulance was also requested based on the visitor reports that the boy was unconscious. Rangers found that the boy, who was at the edge of one of the pools directly under the 640-foot waterfall, was gravely injured.
The first park medics to arrive in the area immediately called for a short-haul extraction, based on the terrain and seriousness of the boy’s injuries. Helicopter 551 with pilot Richard Shatto and a spotter were flown to the scene. Shatto positioned the helicopter in the spray of the giant waterfall, then slowly lowered medic Keith Lober, dangling from the 150-foot short-haul line, down to the site.
Words can't adequately convey a full picture of the difficulty of this situation, and it's too bad we don't have a video, complete with sound, of this maneuver, which required both exceptional flying by the pilot and daring and skill by the rescuer. The job of the ground team, which was working in dangerous conditions in the water at the base of the falls, was no small feat as well.
SAR personnel helped Lober hookup the teenager, who was already packaged in a litter. He was flown out just a bit more than an hour after the initial call for help. The boy was flown to the trauma center at Memorial Hospital in Modesto, where he was treated for his life-threatening injuries.
Skill with water rather than in the water was involved in a very different kind of emergency in the park less than a week later.
On the evening of August 11th, dispatch received a 911 report of a structural fire at the Tecoya Apartments [used for employee housing] in Yosemite Valley. Engine 7 (operated by concessioner Delaware North Corporation) from Yosemite Valley was paged and soon arrived on scene. The company officer saw smoke issuing from the front door and window at the south end of the building.
Initial attack was conducted by four firefighters who were able to knock down the blaze with only minimal usage of water and damage to the apartment. The fire was confined to the kitchen and living room, where there was almost a total loss of personal belongings. Only minor smoke damage was found in the remainder of the building and personal belongings were salvaged. One occupant suffered from minor smoke inhalation.
NPS chief fire officers, firefighters and rangers from other areas of the park also responded to assist in the suppression effort. The fire was caused by the ignition of splattered grease from a pan of donuts that were being deep-fried on the stove.
This would be outstanding work by any big-city fire department, and the skill involved in handling this blaze is illustrated by the following figures:
"The building contains six apartments and is 3666 square feet in size. Damage was limited to approximately 450 square feet. The estimated current replacement value for the building is $1,501,296 and the fire damage is estimated at $75,000."
The level of training and equipment for structural fire protection has improved dramatically in many parks in the past several decades, and this investment certainly paid off last week at Yosemite. This response also provides an example of the importance of teamwork in parks; employees from several park divisions and from concessioners are often part of an area's structural fire brigade.
All in a days work? Maybe so, but a job well-done indeed.