NAPA VALLEY, CA — Many North Bay residents have vivid, even traumatic memories of the October 2017 firestorm that claimed 44 lives. The death toll could have been double that if not for Napa-based California Highway Patrol flight officer Whitney Lowe, a 37-year-old married father of five who lives in Vacaville, his co-worker, CHP pilot Pete Gavitte, and their colleagues based out of Redding.
Some 42 lives were saved from the Atlas Fire because of courageous actions taken by CHP air operations helicopter crew members the evening of Oct. 8, 2017 and early Oct. 9, 2017.
In a recent sit-down interview with Patch at CHP’s hangar at the Napa County Airport, Lowe replayed the moments that led him and Gavitte to respond that night to the Atlas Peak area of Napa Valley wine country.
They were flying over the Oakland area searching for a missing hiker and their colleague, CHP airplane pilot Jan Sears, was flying over Vallejo in response to a burglary in progress.
Sears “looked out the window and saw what he described as a flicker up in the hills above Napa when at night, that should all be dark,” Lowe said.
A few minutes, maybe even seconds, later, Sears called again. This time he said it appeared there was a “rapidly developing” fire on Atlas Peak — a ridge that not unlike most of Napa County, is dotted with vineyards, wineries and residences.
“We got the call as we were heading back to the airport,” Lowe said. “We never landed.”
Instead, they headed toward a fiery inferno with “no mission, no directive, no idea, really, what the night was going to evolve into.”
From far away, Lowe said, it looked like a bomb had gone off in the hill.
“The flames were very very large; under night-vision goggles it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off,” he said.
They went “Paul Revere-style” on the loudspeaker, using their siren to wake people up, all up and down Atlas Peak Road.
They shone their night sun — a spotlight on the belly of the helicopter — into the windows of residences in a senior community to try and wake up the residents, many of whom were already asleep.
That was at about 10:30 p.m., he recalled, and the fire was steadily creeping up the hill.
He remembers thinking of the vineyard workers at the top of the hill who were engrossed in harvesting; they may not even be aware of the fire, he thought.
“Then we started hearing people were entrapped in their homes and they couldn’t get out, and fire resources couldn’t respond because roads were blocked by downed trees,” Lowe said.
“Both Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon roads were blocked several different times in several different locations.”
That is when he and Gavitte knew what they needed to do.
“What started our rescue efforts was listening to the radio and hearing that there is nobody coming for these people, and then seeing the different blockades in the road, from downed trees to downed wires, and lines of cars that were stopped and entrapped,” Lowe said.
“We were looking from above; having the perfect view of the fire headed their direction … and thinking ‘They have no idea,'” he said.
Once they found somewhere suitable to land, Lowe recalls jumping out of the helicopter and running a quarter-mile down to a line of cars full of people trapped by fire.
“I started telling the people in cars, ‘There is a huge fire and it’s coming this direction, you guys are trapped in three different places between here and safety at the bottom of the hill. If you guys want, come up to the helicopter and we’ll start evacuating you guys.’ And so that is what we did.”
In groups of one to four, multiple families were flown to safety at Monticello Road and Atlas Peak Road. When fire encroached that area, the families were evacuated to Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa.
“That is what we did for the next 8-1/2 hours,” Lowe said. “We never shut the helicopter off, just refueled.”
The skies were not friendly that night, he recalled.
“The visibility and the winds that night —we heard it topped off at 84 mph to 86 mph — and different variables worked against us,” Lowe said. “Being able to use night-vision goggles was a huge help to see through the smoke and see where we needed to go.”
About halfway through the night, they got help from a fellow CHP helicopter crew based in Redding.
“They heard on the radio what we were doing and how it was evolving,” Lowe said. “They topped off with fuel and headed this direction.”
From about 3 a.m. on, the two crews did “Round-Robin” rescues, enabling them to tag-team the task.
“Throughout the night we were able to rescue 26 people, and they [the Redding crew] were able to rescue another 16 people,” Lowe said.
He recalls flying up to a wall of fire on several different occasions as they tried to find suitable places to land the helicopter.
“We had three different landing zones throughout the night; all three had burned over,” Lowe said. “Some of the people we rescued told us they were told to go out into the middle of a vineyard and lay down and let the fire burn over them. That was their plan at the time.”
All told, six people died in the Atlas Fire. They were among 44 people who died in the fires that raged through Sonoma, Napa and surrounding Northern California communities starting the night of Oct. 8, 2017.
The life-saving actions of the CHP crews did not go unnoticed. Lowe and Gavitte — along with their Redding colleagues, Officer Chad Millward and Officer Phil Agdeppa — have received five medals of valor, including from the California governor’s office. The pair also has been honored by California State Firefighters Association and California Peace Officers Association.