It was quite a first date.
What started as a day hike around the beautiful Eagle Creek Trail in Mount Hood National Forest turned into a 22-hour rescue mission, where an Air Force reservist helped guide about 150 people to safety when a massive wildfire threatened the area.
Tech. Sgt. Rob Dones, originally from Chicago, Illinois, is assigned to the 349th Medical Squadron as a surgical technician at Travis Air Force Base, California.
He had just moved to Oregon to attend school after serving in the active component of the USAF and deploying on several combat tours in Afghanistan. Dones recently separated from the active USAF to pursue his education goals, but wanted to continue to serve and joined the Air Force Reserve. His father, LTC Bill Dones, is a career Army National Guard officer and combat veteran, so he was a familiar with the reserve component.
Moving to Oregon and getting use to a new way of life was no big deal to Dones. He soon met a nice girl, Cassie, and they decided to go for a day hike with another buddy. But their day of light-hearted fun soon turned deadly serious.
Speaking to Dones while he was house sitting for someone he met during the great escape, he sounded confident and thoughtful, but not boastful as he recounted that day and night last fall. The trail they picked to hike is not known as an overly technical hike, but it did have some challenges. Their planned hike changed soon after it started when they discovered one trail on their route was closed. So the trio made their way down to the Punchbowl Falls and went for a quick swim instead.
The Falls was crowded with people out enjoying the day as well, but Dones said he noticed the cloud of smoke erupting behind them. “I rushed up to a view point and saw the flames on a trail about a quarter mile away from us,” he said. “I doubled back down and started shepherding people out.”
Dones conferred with his buddy and decided that they needed to get out of the area as soon as they could.
Gathering the crowd together, he found a cell phone that had reception and contacted the Sherriff’s office to get any help out to them and to ask for any guidance that they may have. Dones helped guide the roughly 150 people away from the swimming hole and lucked upon Aaron Hamilton, a 6-year wildfire veteran who had a GPS on him.
“It was nothing to play with,” Dones said. “The whole valley was on fire and it was moving faster than I’ve ever seen a fire move.” Hamilton advised everyone on what to expect from the fire and how to stay safe.
“It was pretty aggressive fire behavior,” Hamilton said. “We needed to make rational decisions.”
Dones decided to scout out the escape trail to see if their large group could make it out. In his mind, he could tell that this was going to be a difficult slog as there were elderly hikers, mothers with babies and others who were illprepared to take such unexpected evasive actions to escape the fires.
Dones trekked forward and soon got an airdropped note from a helicopter telling them that the escape trail was closed. Dones dropped back to the main group and with the help of the Hamilton and his gps, started off cross-country to get the large group to safer ground.
“Once we got out of the Punchbowl area, I felt like we were out of the main fire danger,” Dones said.
But they were not out of the danger zone just yet. While the group trekked, small brush fires sparked up around them, Dones said. Fortunately, one of the hikers was quick to rush and stomp it out before panic would ignite in the group.
Soon it became apparent that supplies would be paramount in the escape. Dones was thinking of how he could ration supplies and redistribute water and food while he constantly ran up and down the line of people encouraging them and helping where he could. As he had already hiked around 10 miles, he knew he had to keep charging hard to keep his group together and focused.
Quickly recounting the time, he remembered that they had started out at around 5:30 that afternoon and dark was approaching fast. The rocky hills, steep terrain, smoke and fires starting around them made for an even harder extraction.
Talking to those as he passed them up and down the line, he kept them all informed of what was going on and keeping the crowd both calm and motivated.
“The smoke was pretty heavy the whole time,” he said. “You couldn’t really see more than 15 feet in front of you at a time. At night, you could see the glow behind us and in front of us.”
It was sometime during that smoky evening that a park ranger linked up with the group, giving hope to all that the authorities knew their location and were taking action. Dones decided to gather his group together and try to get some rest. The experience was taking a toll on all and he had to get his group rested to make the final push to safety.
Hearing the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters flying above them, Dones took comfort in knowing that they were not forgotten about, but it was a bittersweet feeling as the smoke and rough terrain kept those rescue birds from landing and making a rescue.
Undaunted, he kept his spirits up and much to his relief, Dones’s group found several backpacks abandoned by hikers who had evacuated earlier from the fire. By this time, it was around midnight and the group was thirsty, hungry and tired. Sharing blankets, sleeping bags, using towels as cover, the group settled down for the short night to regain some strength. Dones took the abandoned supplies and along with what the group had, distributed water and food as best as possible to the group.
Around 4 a.m. the next morning, Dones got the group up and going again. Using a gravity-fed water filter, he made sure that his group had enough water to get a good drink and move out again. Moving out, his folks were tired, dirty and cold, but Dones kept them together for the early morning hike. It was mid-morning before the group linked up with forest rangers who met them with food and transportation for the tired group.
Dones led this group of strangers from imminent danger to safety with scarce resources, through inhospitable terrain and danger all around. Trekking more than 22 miles over two days with little to eat and drink, Dones is the model of stamina, and the portrait of a leader.
Dones shrugs off any praise or the moniker of “hero.”
“I don’t feel like I did that much,” he said. “Other people helped. I just kind of kept us on track.”
But those who were there disagree with the insignificance Dones portrays about his role.
“I was willing to fill in a role and help,” Hamilton said. “Dones was the assertive one we needed.”
Peter Ames Carlin, one of the hikers who was there with his family, insists Dones is a true hero. “I’m talking about hardwired character [stuff],” he said. “The heroism some people do, not out of a sense of obligation or self-enhancement, but because their cells won’t allow them to do anything else. People who act, usually reflexively, without giving it a thought. And in this case, Rob did it while in the midst of a first date.”
Reflecting on that time last September, Dones says, “It was a pretty interesting first week in Oregon.” And no doubt, a heck of a first date.
And, yes, he had a second date with Carrie.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Phelps with the 349th Air Mobility Wing, contributed to this articleRead comments