Surviving the Dixie Fire: Burney men share harrowing details after becoming lost and trapped within raging blaze
A pair of Burney men say they are lucky to be alive after a pair of harrowing ordeals that officials say began with one of the men falling asleep at the wheel and crashing his work truck, while headed to his job supporting the ongoing, months-long Dixie Fire firefighting efforts early Thursday morning, Sept. 9. Speaking exclusively with SCNS today, the men, 24 and 20-year-old Burney residents, Gregory Rambo and Anthony Harris, said that what started out as a very bad day for Greg after he crashed his work truck, only got worse and more potentially deadly from there, when the pair became stranded by the enormous walls of flames kicked up by the massive and still-growing blaze.
Greg and Anthony, who grew up together and consider themselves as close as brothers, described how they both work for Norcal Forest Resources Inc. and have been assisting Cal Fire with forest restoration and rehabilitation. They were trying to make their way home to Burney from a Lassen County hospital, where Greg had been treated after his vehicle crash when disaster nearly struck. Although feeling safe at one moment, as they headed west into Shasta County, just a short time later they found themselves lost and trapped – with no immediate safe way to turn around or get out of the fire’s ravenous path. Thankfully, with help from a life-long local during a series of frantic phone calls, the pair ultimately managed to find their way to safety.
Most incredibly, while doing so they ended up leading an out-of-area fire crew and news vehicle to safety, after discovering that they too had become lost and stranded while trying to navigate their way out of the fire’s danger zone along the area’s countless, winding dirt logging and fire trails.
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California Highway Patrol – Susanville has since said that at around 5:53 a.m., Greg was driving his company’s 1997 Ford service truck eastbound on State Route 44 and was on his way to Susanville when the initial, solo-vehicle crash occurred.
“Rambo fell asleep, causing the service truck to travel across the westbound lane and into the wooded forest,” CHP said of the crash; adding that the overturned truck ended up approximately sixty feet from the roadway.
Although dazed and injured, Greg was able to pull himself from the wreckage of the pickup and eventually made his way back to the highway where a passing Cal Fire firefighter, in the area to assist combating the ongoing Dixie Fire, stopped to help him.
He was eventually transported to Banner Lassen Medical Center for minor injuries sustained in the crash, according to CHP; who said he was likely spared from more serious injuries due to the fact that he was wearing his seatbelt when his truck overturned multiple times. They have also reported that neither alcohol nor drug intoxication were considered factors in the accident.
Burney resident Greg Rambo’s truck is seen after being pulled from the forest following the initial collision that happened early last Thursday morning. Just a few hours later he and a friend became lost and stranded within the raging Dixie Fire, while trying to make their way back home to Burney. CHP – Susanville photo
But Greg’s incredible story of survival did not end there and he and Anthony shared additional details of their near-death experience while facing the Dixie Fire with SCNS today.
According to the two men, after Anthony was sent to pick up Greg from the hospital with intentions of driving home to Burney, the pair ended up caught and stranded by the massive fire as it continued ravaging its way northeast toward Susanville.
While trying to navigate through what they described as choking, pitch-black smoke, with only the bright orange glow from the huge flames to light the way, Greg explained that he and his friend soon found themselves lost and surrounded by towering flames in every direction.
“In all honesty, what happened was me and Anthony came through a burn-over on accident, just trying to get home,” he described. “Even though we made it through the burn-over, by the time we got to the other side, where we were going to head down to the nearby highway, we found ourselves stopped dead in our tracks by the oncoming fire.”
“There was no way we could drive any further or make it out alive through what we saw in front of us,” he continued; saying fire debris continued raining down on their vehicle the entire time while they tried desperately to find an alternate route through the forest to safety.
Anthony added that by the time he and Greg realized they were in imminent danger it was already too late.
“The fire was just so bad, so intense and out of control by then, that by the time we crossed the burn-over it was so bad that we couldn’t just turn around,” he explained; saying that it was only then that it really “clicked mentally” for him and he knew he and Greg were in very real danger.
Seeking a way out of the path of the oncoming conflagration, the pair eventually made their way through the smoke and flames to a lookout high atop a nearby hill, where they hoped to use the higher elevation to spot the safest route out of the immediate danger zone.
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After getting to the lookout, the two men realized they weren’t the only ones stranded by the fire, when they happened upon a Cal Fire crew and news vehicle already at the top of the hill. As it turned out, they had also made their way up to the elevated lookout after becoming lost and stranded and were frantically trying to find their own ways back to safety.
Saying, “All the way through, I didn’t know if I was gonna die or not,” Anthony described the emotions he felt when he and Greg happened upon the firefighters. Saying that in spite of the imminent threat, finding the firefighters – although temporarily lost and stranded themselves – gave him a real sense of relief.
“But then we overheard them reporting that they were trapped at their position and could not find their way out of the fire either,” Greg went on to explain. “Then they overheard us talking about the best way to get off that hill and they asked if we knew a possible safe route to get out of there.”
However, unable to plot their own way to safety due to the thick and choking smoke that enveloped them, Greg and Anthony said they called on family friend and life-long area resident Jory Granillo for help.
“Jory was great and based on what we were telling him, he was able to give us good directions with specific service signs to look for to guide our way through the forest and back to Burney,” Greg explained; with Anthony adding, “I can’t describe how good it felt as soon as I heard Jory say there was a safe road out of the fire’s path and he had been down it recently and believed it was still passable.”
“As soon as he said that and gave us the first directions and what signs to look for, we all hit the dirt road, with us leading the way through, since we were the ones being told where to go and which turns to make,” Anthony explained; calling his ordeal “one of the scariest and most intense things I’ve ever experienced.”
Anthony went on to describe that by following Jory’s directions, the group was eventually able to find their way to safety, ultimately dropping down into the observatory ponds off Highway 89, “a couple miles down from where the fire was burning”, once he finally recognized the area they were traveling in.
“It was really Jory’s calm and steady voice that led us, all of us, out of harm’s way and away from the fire danger that day,” Greg modestly added; with Anthony saying, “All I pretty much did that day was to pick up someone who is like my own big brother from the hospital.”
“Coming back through that fire and helping those firefighters, I feel anyone would have done the same,” Anthony humbly continued; adding, “Besides, we were all in the same awful situation and so, it was really just a good all-around effort by everyone there that day.”
“Me and Greg, we’re just two hard working rednecks from a small town,” Anthony continued; adding, “But all those firefighters out their working those fire lines daily to halt Dixie’s advance? They’re the real heroes.”
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Greg went on to tell SCNS that he would love to contact the CDF firefighter who initially spotted his wrecked truck off the highway and turned around to check on the accident, ultimately finding and helping him.
“I want to say thank you,” he explained. “Not just for saving my life but for being dang good at doing his job.”
“If he ever finds his way to Burney, I owe him a case of beer and a BBQ,” the grateful survivor turned rescuer continued; describing the unknown firefighter as “a true, red-blooded, American hero” and saying, “I really owe him one.”
Greg also took the time to thank all those from the surrounding Intermountain area communities who have wished him well since his back-to-back brushes with death that Thursday morning and afternoon.
“I’m just happy to be alive and thankful that we all made it home safe,” he said; while brushing off any notion that either him or Anthony had themselves, acted like true heroes that day.
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Trevor Montgomery, 50, moved in 2017 to the Intermountain area of Shasta County from Riverside County and runs Riverside County News Source (RCNS) and Shasta County News Source (SCNS).
Additionally, he writes or has written for several other news organizations; including Riverside County-based newspapers Valley News, Valley Chronicle, Anza Valley Outlook, and Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle; the Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County; and Mountain Echo in Shasta County. He is also a regular contributor to Thin Blue Line TV and Law Enforcement News Network and has had his stories featured on news stations throughout the Southern California and North State regions.
Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back, and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident. (Click here to see segment of Discovery Channel documentary of Trevor’s accident.)
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations; including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, and Lake Elsinore Station; along with other locations.
Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.
Trevor has been married for more than 30 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and his “fluid family” includes 13 children and 18 grandchildren.