The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has announced their 2011 Medal of Valor Awards.
The Valor Awards Program was established to officially and publicly recognize the exceptionally heroic acts performed by members of the L.A County Sheriff’s Department.
The awards are given for Meritorious Conduct – Gold, Meritorious Conduct – Silver, The Purple Heart, The Sheriff’s Humanitarian Award and the Medal of Valor.
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Sheriff’s Personnel responding to the Station fire received the Meritorious Conduct – Gold.
On August 26, 2009, the largest and deadliest wildfire in Los Angeles County, the Station Fire, burned over 160,000 acres and killed two heroic firefighters who were tasked with finding a safe escape zone for Fire Camp 16, which housed about 55 inmate workers and fire camp personnel.
On the fifth day of the fire, Sheriff’s Department personnel were notified by Los Angeles County Fire personnel that assistance was needed to respond to a fatal accident at Fire Camp 16. It was learned that two firefighters were presumed dead as a result of their vehicle going off a steep embankment. In addition, Fire Camp 16 was in the direct path of the fire and had been engulfed by flames. Fifty-five inmate workers and several Fire Department personnel were presumed to be seriously injured or dead as a result of the blaze.
Several attempts were made by helicopter to rescue the injured or recover the dead. It was determined, however, that conditions were far too dangerous to land. Based on this, two Sheriff’s response teams worked in concert with Fire personnel to find a way up to the camp and deceased firemen. Their mission also involved handling any crime scenes and finding a way to rescue surviving inmate workers and Fire personnel.
Sheriff’s team members were briefed on the grave and life-threatening circumstances of the mission and were offered the opportunity to opt out. Not one team member requested reassignment. They were told to remove their bulletproof vests to help deal with dehydration and intense heat from the fire.
Despite road closures to the camp, increasing dense smoke, intense heat, and burning debris, the teams left the command post to proceed with their missions. Team members were sent northbound and southbound to find a route to the camp. On several occasions they were forced to stop their convoys to wait for passing flames and landslides on both sides of the road and to remove burning debris, trees and boulders from their paths, without the benefit of proper safety equipment and breathing apparatus.
As one of the convoy teams neared the summit, they were advised by California Highway Patrol and Fire Department personnel to turn around because the roads had been declared impassable. Despite the warnings, the convoy carefully scouted the roadways ahead and proceeded to the camp as strong wind funnels blew large embers and debris, severely diminishing their visibility. Along the way, both teams considered the option of turning around if necessary.
However, it became apparent this would not be an option. The cliff side roads were now too narrow and visibility became increasingly poor, making a retreat impossible. At one point a large, thick fire cloud rushed over the vehicles, shaking them as it passed.
Despite the life-threatening challenges, both teams persisted and arrived at their destination. They observed that most of the camp had already burned to the ground. It was also apparent that all of the fire camp vehicles were destroyed in the blaze, leaving the inmate crews and camp personnel with no means of escape. The response team members quickly began coordinating the safe transportation of the crews and fire camp personnel. They also coordinated the recovery and transportation of the two deceased firemen from the bottom of the steep canyon with team members from the Antelope Valley Search and Rescue, and Montrose Search and Rescue.
Each team member knew the danger and challenges they faced. They weighed their own personal safety against the need to rescue the people at the fire camp and each chose to risk his or her life to save the lives of others.
For displaying great courage above and beyond the call of duty to perform an act of exceptional heroism, Reserve Volunteer Christopher Neal and Civilian Volunteer Andrew Petty are awarded the Sheriff’s Star Scroll, and the following team members are awarded the Meritorious Conduct Medal, Gold: Retired Sergeant Vincent Burton, Sergeant Robert Farkas, Sergeant Eric Fox, Sergeant David Valentine, Deputy Tina Alvarez, Deputy Phillip Briones, Deputy Francois Chang, Deputy Michael Fairbanks, Deputy Dennis Gill, Deputy Darryl Ketchens, Deputy Jeffrey Martin, Deputy Marlena Martinez, Deputy Lloyd McCullough, Deputy Rowell Quemuel, Reserve Chief Michael Leum, Reserve Captain Janet Henderson, Reserve Captain John Johnston, Reserve Sergeant John McKently, Reserve Sergeant Bruce Parker, Reserve Deputy Doug Cramoline, Reserve Deputy Fred Koegler, and Reserve Deputy Fred Wenzel.
For more stories from the 2011 Medals of Valor Awards, click here.