LEMOORE, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) — Nearly two years after the start of the Creek Fire, naval airmen who rescued stranded hikers and campers are being honored for their bravery with the Distinguished Flying Cross Award.

Lt. Brandon Tinkham, search and rescue mission commander, Lt. Joshua Tassone, search and rescue co-pilot, Chief Naval Aircrewman Jesse Peterson, crew chief and Hospital Corpsman First Class Tyler Hodge, search and rescue Medical Technician, were all honored with the award on Thursday. 

“It wasn’t easy, it was definitely the most difficult mission of my career,” explained Jesse Peterson.

The Distinguished Flying Cross award is given to those who show heroism during a mission or extreme excellence during an air flight.

This crew earned the honor as they flew in the dark, through the flames, to rescue dozens who were stranded in the growing blaze. 

“We lost contact with terrain at one point,” recounted Joshua Tassone. “We initiated a climb, blind into the smoke, one of the other crewmen picked out some terrain, and luckily we could funnel our way back out.”

With more than 10 hours in the air, the days-long rescue saw the crew work to rescue stranded hikers from the Lake Edison area. 

“I think once we flew them over the fire on the way out they really got a good look at how massive the fire was and how close it was starting to get,” Tassone remembers.

The harrowing mission was just part of their job according to Peterson. 

“Awards are great and all but this is what we trained to do,” Peterson says. “We’re always ready at any time for that call, regardless of what the mission is. So our goal is to just get in there, provide some lifesaving support, get them back to a higher level of care and to safety.”