SONOMA COUNTY (KPIX 5) — The Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter rescue unit that just saved two Marin County firefighters trapped in the midst of the Woodward Fire last Friday night is at risk of being eliminated due to budget shortfalls.
The unit has been saving lives for more than 50 years. Since the 1960s, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter program has been a lifeline for the county, performing nearly 900 missions a year.
The modern version of the program is known as Henry One. With his department losing $14 million due to major budget cuts, Sheriff Mark Essick says the rescue chopper program could be a victim of that financial shortfall.
“Henry One is about a $2.2 million project that we spend every year, and it certainly is a project that we are looking at very carefully, closely,” said Sheriff Essick. “And certainly it is at risk at this point.”
Budget cuts or not, the remarkable program has saved lives all across Sonoma County’s 1,600 square miles, including the dramatic night rescue last Friday of two firefighters trapped on a ridge surrounded by fire.
Tactical Flight Officer Chris Haas dangled under Henry One during the operation.
“The fire being there, I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me absolutely … the nerves in my stomach felt as if the butterflies were right there,” said Haas.
Through the darkness, with flames bearing down on the men, they quickly attached themselves and lifted out of harm’s way.
“Me and Paul, my pilot that night, we have to do our jobs perfectly and we have to get them. There’s no second try; no second chance. We had to get them”, said Haas.
Henry One has assisted in police pursuits and rescued hundreds of people all along the miles of rugged Sonoma coastline, pulling individuals from remote beaches, cliffs, mountain tops and other difficult areas that only a trained crew and helicopter can reach.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes that funding for the life-saving program can be found as the county faces budget shortages compounded by the fiscal challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My hope is that our community will really see the value of the helicopter. It is a costly program, yes, but it absolutely saves lives every day,” said Sheriff Essick.