A firefighter presumed dead in the Harris Fire in October 2007 is back on duty after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, thanks to the heroism of Ramona resident and Cal Fire Capt. Carl Schwettmann Jr. with the Ramona Fire Department.
Schwettmann, 37, was one of 42 state employees in Sacramento last Tuesday to receive the Governor’s Medal of Valor, the highest honor California awards its heroes.
The father of four sons risked his life when he drove a Cal Fire pickup into the intense heat, smoke, flames and howling wind of the Harris Fire when he learned that a firefighter was missing and presumed to be dead.
“Hey, we don’t leave anyone behind,” was his reaction. “I’m going to find him.”
A strike team leader of two crews assisting with medical treatment of a Cal Fire engine crew that had suffered severe burns from the Harris Fire near Potrero, Schwettmann spent 15 to 20 minutes searching for missing Firefighter Andrew Pikop, who had suffered burns over his entire body. When he found Pikop, Schwettmann radioed for a helicopter to rescue and transport the severely injured Pikop to the hospital.
Pikop, 23 in 2007, was one of four firefighters whose engine had burned in the Harris blaze when they tried to save a home during the rescue of a father and son. He was separated from the others during the escape from the flames.
“I know, if I was out there, I know someone would be coming to get me,” Schwettmann said while on duty at Ramona Fire Station No. 82 last Friday. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
Schwettmann was assigned to Boulevard in 2007.
“I’ve had a lot of good training over the years,” he said of why he was determined to find a fellow firefighter in such dangerous and chaotic conditions. “I know my limitations. I know how hard I can push it... When one of your family is lost, you push a little bit harder.
“In the end, you do what you’ve got to do.”
The Ramona firefighter’s barn on Orange Avenue burned in the Witch Fire later that day, but he was able to save his home — with a shovel. As a member of a Cal Fire hand crew, he said he learned to use alternate tactics to fight fires.
“I really love what I do,” he said of his job with Cal Fire. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
At times he meets people in some of the worst situations imaginable, he said, “but hopefully you can make it just a little bit better.”
According to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, the Governor’s Medal of Valor is awarded to individuals who have performed an extraordinary act of heroism “above and beyond the call of duty to save the life of another person, or have risked their own life to save another.”
There are two types of awards: Special Act or Gold Medal for heroism “at great risk to his or her own life in an effort to save human life,” and Special Service or Silver Medal, for heroism above and beyond the normal call of duty to save human life or property.
Schwettmann received a Gold Medal.
He was one of six Cal Fire employees honored by Schwarzenegger on Dec. 9. Other honorees work for the state Department of Fish and Game, Franchise Tax Board, California Highway Patrol, Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation.
Each of their names is on the Christmas tree , the Tree of Heroes, in Capitol Park in Sacramento.
Schwettmann plans to put the medal in a display case.
“I truly believe I work with some of the best firefighters in the world,” he said.
“The men and women who devote their professional lives to serve California and its citizens often do so under very challenging circumstances,” Schwarzenegger said when he presented the medals of valor. “... The heroic acts of these individuals clearly show that, when faced with adversity, they’re ready to respond regardless of the personal risks. I am extremely proud and honored to present these medals today.”
The state’s Medal of Valor program began in 1959. In 2006, Ramona resident Kevin O’Leary, then a Cal Fire battalion chief in Valley Center, received the Governor’s Medal of Valor for “entering a home under extreme, dangerous fire conditions to rescue an elderly occupant” during the October 2003 wildfires. O’Leary is now Cal Fire Central Division Chief headquartered in Ramona.