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Incident Name: Elk Complex
Date: 7/23/07
Personnel: two lives lost
Agency/Organization: Private contractors
Position: Firecamp crew


Richard Pearson Jr., 42, of Bakersfield, California
George James Barbis, 35, of Okanogan, Washington.

Richard and George, friends and co-workers, were members of the Fire Camp Kitchen Crew (Elk Complex Fire, Happy Camp, CA). They drowned in the Klamath River near Happy Camp CA on 7/23/07 while swimming during a break from their fire camp duties.

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Mouth of Clear Creek where it flows into the Klamath River near Happy Camp CA

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • South Ops News and Notes on 7/24/2007:
    During the afternoon yesterday, two off-duty camp crew personnel were involved in an incident along the Klamath River. One crew member drowned and the other is missing and presumed drowned. Resources assigned to the Elk Complex assisted the local sheriff office in the attempted rescue.
  • From our phone call to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department:
    Susan Gravenkamp, spokesperson for the Siskiyou County Sherrif's department said there's a popular swimming hole at the mouth of Clear Creek but just beyond that the Klamath River has a strong undercurrent which has drowned swimmers in the past. One victim has been recovered. The search continues for the second.
  • Klamath National Forest Press Release later on 7/24/2007: River Incident Facts
    • At 2:44 p.m. on July 23, 2007, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department received a call for assistance from a swimmer reporting a possible drowning of two of his companions.
    • Deputies, volunteers, a swift water rescue team, a California Highway Patrol helicopter, Klamath National Forest firefighters and Elk Complex incident personnel responded to the Klamath River at Clear Creek, approximately 7 miles south of Happy Camp, CA.
    • The body of one victim was recovered from water approximately 10 to 15 feet deep.
    • The second victim is still missing and presumed drowned.
    • Both victims were employees of a kitchen organization assigned to the Elk Complex and were swimming in the Klamath River during off-duty hours.
    • On Tuesday, July 24, 2007, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department, assisted by Elk Complex personnel, resumed their search for the missing swimmer.
    • The search and ongoing investigation are being managed by the Siskiyou County Sheriff Department. Additional information will be made available as it is released.

[Please note that also on July 23, 2007 in a separate incident a Type 2 helicopter crashed while delivering supplies near Norcross Campground and the pilot, Dennis Davis, was killed.]

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Hotlist Links:

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Media Articles and Reports.

  • Klamath River search for drowning victim continues

    07/25/2007 | Online article

  • HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — The search continues for a fire camp catering employee who is missing and presumed drowned in the Klamath River. Richard Pearson Jr., 42, of Bakersfield, Calif., disappeared along with his friend and co-worker George James Barbis, 35, of Okanogan, Wash., as they swam in the river near Clear Creek Monday.

    Frank Gonzalez, who worked with the two drowning victims at Teen Challenge Port-A-Pit, a company that contracts to provide meals at fire camps, called the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department Monday at about 2:45 p.m. to report that two of his friends had disappeared while the three swam together. Gonzalez told authorities that one of the men wasn’t a strong swimmer and the other had sore ribs from an injury. He said they got tired and were swept into the current and disappeared.

    Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Susan Gravenkamp said the mouth of Clear Creek has a popular swimming hole. Just beyond that, though, the main stream of the river, which looks deceptively calm, has a strong undercurrent.

    Sheriff’s department divers who recovered Barbis’ body reported that they have found bodies of two other drowning victims in the same hole in recent years, Gravenkamp said.

    A California Highway Patrol helicopter is searching from the air, and deputies and Forest Service crews are walking the banks in hopes of spotting Pearson, Gravenkamp reported.

  • Second body found in river near Happy Camp

    7/26/2007 | Online followup article  (no longer online...)

    [excerpt] A California Highway Patrol helicopter flew the river Wednesday to search for Pearson, and the crew found a body about a half-mile downstream from where Pearson was last seen, said Susan Gravenkamp, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department.

    Sheriff's deputies were helicoptered to the site to recover the body. Gravenkamp said an autopsy will have to be performed to confirm identity and cause of death because of the condition of the body.

  • Tragedy in Happy Camp

    July 28, 2007 | The Happy Camp News: Online Article  (no longer online...)

    People of Happy Camp and the surrounding area faced several fatalities in the past few days. A Forest Service contracted helicopter making a delivery to fire lines crashed. The victim of the helicopter crash has been identified as Dennis Luster Davis, 61, of Boise ID. Davis was a pilot for Idaho Helicopters and flew a Bell 205, type 2 helicopter, tail number 205BR.

    Now, two food service workers who were employed at fire camp have also drowned in the Klamath River. They went swimming at Clear Creek.

    Clear Creek is a popular swimming hole, but local families swim upstream in the creek, as you may see depicted on the mural on the side of Parry’s Market on Davis Road. The Karuk people have an ancient legend that a giant black snake who lives in a cave down at Ishi Pishi falls comes and will pull under a swimmer in the Klamath River. Perhaps that account explains the current that can sweep away an unsuspecting swimmer in the stream of the Klamath River. The worst thing a person can do is exhaust himself in fighting the current, Perhaps we take too lightly the danger of water sports.

    A second swimmer’s body has now been located – Richard Pearson, Jr. 31; the body of George Barbis, 35, was recovered from the Klamath River earlier. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the families.

    Closer to home, a Happy Camp resident, Harriet Merkler, was fatally injured in a roll-over accident on Highway 96 a few miles east of Happy Camp. Her husband, George, 81, was flown to medical care, but survived. Two minors in the car were not seriously injured.

    To all the friends and family we wish to express our sympathy and condolences. Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this sorrow.

    At dawn, July 28, 2007, community members and fellow firefighters gathered at the Happy Camp River Park to remember and honor nine firefighters and camp employees who lost their lives over the past twenty years on the Happy Camp Ranger District. Approximately 1,100 of participants honored the fallen during an early morning sunrise ceremony.. July 28th is significant as it is the fifth anniversary of three Lassen National Forest Firefighters who lost their lives on the Stanza Fire in 2002.

    The remembrance included presentations from the Forest Service Honor Guard, including a CALFIRE bag piper, and a Karuk prayer. Comments were presented by Klamath National Forest Supervisor Peg Boland and Happy Camp District Ranger Alan Vandiver, as well as friends and co-workers of those who have passed. Pastor Bill Estes from the Happy Camp Assembly of God offered an invocation, followed by inspirational thoughts from Elk Complex Incident Commander Mike Dietrich. The Honor Guard performed a ceremonial ‘Last Alarm’, five bell rings sounded three times, as has been the tradition for over 100 years. A Forest Service bagpiper concluded the remembrance with a rendition of Amazing Grace.

    Fire camp employees George Barbis and Richard Pearson, Jr., under contract to the Forest Service, were lost in an off-duty drowning accident in the Klamath River. George and Richard had also been workers with Teen Challenge.

    In August of 2006, Pilots Andrei Pantchenko and Terry ‘Jake’ Jacobs perished following the crash of their helicopter into the Klamath River. During the 2002 Stanza Fire, Firefighters Heather DePaolo, John Self and Steven Oustad died after their fire engine left the roadway and traveled 1,200 feet downhill in a tragic accident. During the 1987 Slater Fire, San Bernardino National Forest Firefighter Bruce Visser was killed after being struck by a motorcycle while performing structure protection duties.

    A significant number of firefighters remained on the fireline during the remembrance to ensure that Elk Complex fires did not escape their current containment efforts

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • Elk Complex Remembrance Ceremony: Brochure

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Contributors to this article: Mellie

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