Inside the CHP Helicopter That Rescued 26 People From the Atlas Peak Fire

6 min
California Highway Patrol pilot Pete Gavitte (pictured) and his flight officer, Whitney Lowe, rescued 26 people off of Atlas Peak in Napa County on the night of Oct. 8, 2017.

California Highway Patrol pilot Pete Gavitte and his flight officer, Whitney Lowe, were flying their helicopter over the North Bay on the night of Oct. 8, 2017, when they heard chatter on their radio about a fire growing on Atlas Peak.

Within minutes they were over the Napa County fire. "I had night vision goggles on and just said, 'Holy cow.' Looked like a nuke had gone off, you know, on the mountains up there," Gavitte recalled. "Huge smoke plume, huge orange glow."

They saw a long line of cars trapped on a road blocked by downed trees and power lines. The officers landed their helicopter in a field on the peak and began ferrying people to safety.

They returned again and again, even as powerful winds hammered their helicopter. By the end of the night, Gavitte and Lowe would fly 26 people off Atlas Peak, and 42 total would be rescued with help from another helicopter.

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