On Tuesday, December 5, 2017, an intense Santa Ana wind event hit Ventura County, California. Within hours, the Thomas fire consumed over 30,000 acres and spread from Santa Paula to Ventura burning hundreds of homes. A number of Channel Island National Park employees who work out on the islands had mainland homes in areas that needed to be evacuated. It was urgent and important for park leadership to get all employees back to their families and homes as the Thomas fire evacuations were taking place. The park boats were unable to recover staff from the islands due to high winds and high seas.
Park leadership called Mark Oberman from Channel Islands Aviation to assess the possibility of flying the employees off the islands. Oberman agreed, and made three flights to the islands that day transporting park employees back to the mainland. Flying conditions were marginal due to turbulence from the winds and poor visibility from the smoke.
On the first outbound flight, Oberman stopped to pick up NPS personnel at the west end of Santa Cruz Island. That crew had a heavy load of gear, and Oberman had the judgment and experience to know that it would not be safe to take off from that airstrip with a heavy load in an east wind and declined the flight. After picking up personnel at two other islands, Oberman flew back over the main ranch strip on Santa Cruz and determined that he could safely land there. The personnel who had been left at the west end were directed to drive to the main ranch strip where Oberman safely picked them up and flew them to the mainland. It was exemplary that Oberman continually evaluated the risk while flying that day and turned down any risk that he felt would be excessive. This constant evaluation of safety led him to pick up the Santa Cruz staff and their gear at the main ranch strip after he had determined conditions were better there than at the west end of the island. The measure of a pilot is not merely in flying skills, but in judgment. Mark Oberman demonstrated not just excellent flying skills in dealing with the Santa Ana winds and turbulence, but excellent risk management and aviation safety judgment. He knew the limitations, how to mitigate risk, and had the experience to know how and where he could safely take off and land.
Returning park employees to their homes and families during the emergency was of crucial importance. Mark Oberman safely and successfully met the mission, while not taking unnecessary risk due to the urgency of the situation. The level of skill and soundness of judgment are qualities the National Park Service values in a pilot and recognizes Mark Oberman with an Airward.
As one of the most destructive fires to hit southern California in decades, the Thomas fire and December 5, 2017 will be remembered by many. Employees of Channel Island National Park are indebted to Mark Oberman and Channel Island Aviation for his safe aviation actions on that day.