Steve Oaks met David Dahlberg when they were tasked with saving 62 children and counselors from the Whittier fire last year.
Oaks, a Santa Barbara County Fire Division chief, said that before Dahlberg left, “I wanted to look into his eyes to make sure the instructions were understood.”
Dahlberg, a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service, will be a guest at President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening.
Dahlberg and another Californian, 12-year-old Preston Sharp, will be honored for their heroism and their patriotism. Their actions match the State of the Union’s theme: “Building a safe, strong and proud America.”
Preston has been placing flowers and American flags on the graves of veterans since 2015 as part of the Flags and Flowers Challenge.
His inspiration came from visiting his grandfather’s grave in the Redding Memorial Park on Veterans Day that year. Although his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Navy, had his decorations, Preston noticed that many veterans’ graves had nothing.
Preston, with the help of his mother, April, set out to decorate every grave. Thousands of graves have been marked with flags and flowers because of Preston’s dedication.
Initially, Preston was taking odd jobs and collecting donations to buy flowers and carnations. But April Smith started a GoFundMe for her son’s challenge to honor veterans at cemeteries in Redding, Shasta County and neighboring localities.
To date, Preston has raised more than $36,000 for his cause.
With the support from his campaign, Preston aims to leave flags and flowers at cemeteries in all 50 states, according to the campaign’s GoFundMe page. “As of January 2018, Preston has organized the placement of over 40,000 US flags and artificial red carnations at veteran’s gravesites,” the website states.
The collaborative effort to reach the 62 children and counselors at Circle V Ranch Camp was “a surreal moment,” Oaks said.
Oaks, who was appointed as the evacuation group supervisor for the July incident, recalls how sheriff’s deputies “made numerous attempts to get across the road” past the blaze but failed.
Smoke and flames prevented almost everyone from reaching the camp — except Dahlberg.
“There were tree branches on fire falling in the road. A few hit my truck and rolled off,” Dahlberg told CNN about the mission. “There were rocks rolling off the side of the cliff.”
Dahlberg’s instructions were to keep everyone safe and wait until sheriff’s deputies and search-and-rescue teams arrived, Oaks said.
“His presence up there assured them they were not alone,” Oaks said.
Authorities waited for the fire to settle down before getting the vehicles to the camp. A bulldozer plowed a path to the camp, with six sheriff’s deputies and search-and-rescue vehicles riding behind it.
The children were placed in the vehicles, as well as in counselors’ personal cars, and driven to safety.
Oaks still hasn’t had a chance to thank Dahlberg and the team. “I want to take them out to dinner one day,” he said.