by John Riha
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Near the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness of southern Oregon, a crew of firefighting helicopter rappellers prepares for a dangerously hot, dry fire season. Miles away, lightning-filled thunderstorms develop over the Pacific Ocean and slowly approach the parched mountains.
At the rappelling base, an alliance forms between an unlikely pair. Corby Jones is the only female rappeller on the base—a brash, half-Umpqua rookie who makes up for a lack of experience with a surplus of self-confidence. Lucas Bowden is a veteran firefighter haunted by a rappelling accident that killed his best friend. Ultimately, the trust that Corby and Lucas develop becomes the foundation of a dangerous, unprecedented rescue mission.
Backpacking in the Kalmiopsis would be challenging for anyone—but visually impaired Kal Spencer isn’t one to shy away from difficulties. When her father, Will, proposes a dad-daughter backpacking adventure, young Kal is all in. She’s hiked before, and she knows how to follow a companion by sounds. Her mother, Joss, reluctantly agrees. After waiting for thunderstorms to clear the region, Will and Kal head into the wilderness.
Miles away from the backpackers, a small lightning-caused wildfire suddenly explodes into a giant conflagration. Fueled by bone-dry timber, the fire consumes thousands of acres in a matter of hours. A massive firefighting response is mobilized. Fire managers plan how to attack the blaze but knowledge of the backpackers is lost in an administrative miscommunication.
In the Kalmiopsis Wildnerness, Kal and Will are cut off by smoke and walls of fire. Seeking safety at a nearby river, Will leaves an exhausted Kal to search for a trail into the river gorge. But he doesn’t return, leaving Kal alone in a frightening world of darkness.
When operations managers finally realize backpackers are trapped in the wilderness, the entire firefighting strategy must change. Computer maps and thermal images reveal they may be too late. Thunderous clouds of smoke prevent searching by helicopter. With hopes fading, they turn to an off-the-books rescue scheme proposed by the improbable pair of rappellers, Corby Jones and Lucas Bowden. The two will river kayak into the heart of the firestorm to search for Kal and her father. Not everyone makes it back out.