The Los Angeles Fire Department honored a Camarillo resident during its annual Valor Awards ceremony on Friday for performing a risky helicopter rescue during the Woolsey Fire.
Dave Nordquist, 58, worked as a helicopter pilot for the department when he and pilot Joel Smith rescued three people and two dogs trapped on Castro Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains on the second day of the fire a year ago.
Nordquist was wearing a GoPro camera during the rescue and uploaded the footage to his YouTube page after editing it down to 11 minutes.
“No one really knew what happened except for me and Joel until the video came out,” Nordquist said.
The footage went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views and bringing national attention to their efforts. A year later, the two were awarded a Medal of Merit for their actions, among the highest honors given by LAFD.
Nordquist and Smith had been performing water drops on the Woolsey Fire when the helicopter coordinator reported three technicians trapped on Castro Peak. While running low on fuel, Nordquist flew the copter to the peak and kept it steady near the ground while Smith got out and found the trapped technicians, bringing them on board before the fire reached the peak.
“I was told it was burned over five to 10 minutes after we left,” Nordquist said.
Nordquist was born and raised in Van Nuys. As the grandson of a World War II pilot, he took an early interest in flying and got his pilot’s license as a teenager.
However, instead of pursuing a career in aviation, Nordquist followed his father’s advice and became a firefighter at 19, working for the LAFD as a fire engineer for almost two decades. At one point, a colleague suggested he get his helicopter to fly for the agency.
“Let’s say you want to start riding a motorcycle. Well, you just add that onto your already existing driver’s license, and that’s the same kind of principle with going into different categories of aircraft,” Nordquist said.
Nordquist first worked as a flight instructor and eventually became a copter pilot. The day the Hill and Woolsey fires broke out, he had a sense of what he was about to get into, but he never imagined he would participate in a rescue like the one he did.
Nordquist said he was humbled to be recognized by his fellow firefighters for his actions, but noted that as a copter pilot, rescues just came with the territory.
“I had days on the job even more heroic that I never got recognized for, and that’s OK,” Nordquist said. “We don’t do it for acclaim or notoriety.”
Since the rescue, Nordquist has retired from the fire agency and taken a job flying for Erickson Inc., working as a private contractor to assist fire departments all over the world. Although he does not work for LAFD directly anymore, he said there’s a mutual respect among all colleagues past and present.
“When we’re in the air, we’re just another air asset,” he said.