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Travis Reserve Citizen Airman leads way in Oregon forest fire escape

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Rob Dones was simply out for a 4-mile hike when a giant plume of smoke from a raging forest fire turned a casual date into a 22-hour plus, rescue of more than 140 people.

Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Dones is assigned to the 349th Medical Squadron as a surgical technician at Travis Air Force Base, California.

The 8-year Air Force veteran had just transferred to Portland State University from Solano Community College in Fairfield, California when he decided to go on a hike around the Eagle Creek Trail in Mount Hood National Forest. His friend, Cassie, accompanied him on what would turn out to be an interesting first date.

They made a stop at Punchbowl Falls and on their way back when 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 sheperding people out.”

Dones helped guide around 150 people away from the swimming hole and lucked upon Aaron Hamilton, a 6-year wildfire veteran who also had a GPS on him, the Reserve Citizen Airman said. Dones then found a cell phone with reception, made contact with the sheriff’s office, and was given guidance on what to do to get everyone out.

“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.”

They took a head count to help ensure everyone made it out. Hamilton took the lead due to his fire experience and GPS, while Dones stayed at the back to help anyone who was struggling during the overnight escape from the inferno.

“Once we got out of the Punchbowl area, I felt like we were out of the main fire danger,” Dones said.

However, the risk was not completely gone. 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.

“The smoke was pretty heavy the whole time,” he added. “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.”

The trail itself could also prove treacherous at times, said Peter Ames Carlin, one of the hikers who was there with his family. The river canyon is generally steep and rocky. The trail is thin in most places, and at times towered more than 100 feet above the water, carved into the canyon walls, either on solid rock, or in other places, loose stones. At particularly dangerous spots, chains are embedded in the wall so one has something to hold on to as they creep above the water and jagged rocks below.

As they hiked, searching for a way out, Blackhawks buzzed overhead, unable to land and evacuate people due to the terrain.

“The trees were too tall for them to get to us,” Hamilton said. “People got pretty miserable when they weren’t able to drop supplies either.”

Since most people had come to the Columbia River Gorge for swimming or small hikes, they were ill-prepared for a 22-hour excursion, said Carlin. Most of the hikers were young and strong, but there was at least one diabetic and a woman with asthma who was having a tough time with the thick smoke in the air. One couple had a baby and a two-year-old toddler.

But, the Reserve Citizen Airman stepped up to the challenge of managing the diverse group.

“Dones is the man who held us all together throughout our long, dangerous journey away from the fires and into safety,” said Carlin. “When we needed a leader to give us information, direction, and a perpetual confidence to enact a plan of action that would lead to safety, he was the man who stepped up, took the burden on his shoulders, and made it seem easy.”

Hamilton echoed the impact Dones had on the group. The Air Force Reserve medic ran up and down the line, ensuring it stayed as tight as possible and encouraging people along the way.

Dones shrugged off the praise.

“I don’t feel like I did that much,” he said. “Other people helped. I just kind of kept us on track.”

Most disagreed with the insignificance Dones portrayed about his role.

“I was willing to fill in a role and help,” Hamilton said. “Dones was the assertive one we needed.”

Carlin added to Hamilton’s remarks, insisting Dones was a hero.

“I’m talking about hardwired character [stuff],” Carlin exclaimed. “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.”

It was a first date intended to be a day hike, but lasted much longer.

As evening set in, the group came upon a rough and ready forest ranger named Sharon.

“We hadn’t had communication with anyone for about three or four hours,” Hamilton said.

Sharon had a radio with her, established contact with the forest service, and guided the group to a clear place to bunker down for the night.

“We bedded down, in a manner of speech, at about midnight and tried to get some sleep,” Carlin said. “It didn’t come easily. All of us were crowded into a relatively small space. Fortunately it would be a warm night, but even temps in the 60’s is pretty chilly when you’re sleeping in the dirt. So, even when our family huddled together for warmth we were all shivering.”

Relief came when Dones’ voice cut through the chill before dawn with, “Up and at ‘em, time to move out,” Carlin said.

The group trudged on, mile-by-mile through the early hours of the morning, greeted by cheery forest rangers encouraging them to finish strong, Carlin said.

Finally, they reached safety, food, and buses waiting to take people away.

Bringing in the last of the hikers was the Citizen Airman, who had spent the last hours of the journey doing exactly what he’d done from the beginning: walking up and down the line, checking on folks, joking with them, keeping them moving, and making certain everyone got out safe and sound, Carlin said.

“Ultimately that was Rob Dones' greatest act of heroism,” Carlin added. “He didn’t save anyone’s life. What he did do was even greater: He had made all of us believe that we could and would save ourselves.”