Frederick Dominguez

A California family will celebrate "the merriest Christmas ever" now that a father and three children were found chilled but alive Wednesday after four days in the forest near the Sierras, said the children's grandmother, Barbara Sams.

Two California Highway Patrol pilots taking advantage of a gap in the snowy weather spotted a bright hat belonging to the youngest of the missing children, who on Sunday went looking for a Christmas tree to cut with their dad.

The pilots then saw "HELP" stamped in the snow and a figure — the father, Freddie Dominguez — waving up at them, said Madde Watts of the Butte County Sheriff's Office.

"I knew they were survivors; I knew they'd make it," Sams said.

A chopper made two trips to Brakebill Elementary School in Stirling City, Calif., in the afternoon with Dominguez and his children, Christopher, 18, Alexis, 15, and Joshua, 12. He was seen clutching a yellow, battery-powered saw, but no tree.

All four were talking and drinking hot chocolate at Feather River Hospital, where they were treated for dehydration and hypothermia, hospital spokeswoman Maureen Wisener said. She said some had minor frostbite; she was uncertain whether they would be released Wednesday.

The family members had last been seen Sunday afternoon when Dominguez, 38, parked his pickup truck and headed into the woods near Inskip, about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Hours later, the first of a series of snowstorms hit the area. Snowdrifts reached 7 feet in some spots.

Dominguez had little experience with wooded terrain. He is an exterminator who moved from Los Angeles to Paradise, Calif., a year ago to be closer to his kids, said Tina Stothers, sister to his ex-wife's fiance.

Rescue workers did not start out until Monday night, after the children's mother, Lisa Sams, found out that Joshua did not make it to school.

Searchers found Dominguez's truck, but could not find the family's tracks.

The family had gone out wearing jeans, sneakers and light jackets and toting no food. They got lost by going from tree to tree, Sams said. Temperatures fell to the 20s overnight; visibility dropped to almost nil, Watts said. They found water and huddled for warmth in a culvert, less than 2 miles from the road where they started.

Rescue workers scoured the steep ridges. Some were on snowmobiles, others on skis. They found nothing, leaving the family to confront the possibility that the four had perished.

Moments before the rescue was announced, Stothers tearfully said she imagined the family "huddled together and waiting to be found."

Although the weather had cleared Wednesday, more snow was forecast.

"We were concerned because the weather was moving in," Watts said.

And the family will get its tree. Sams said a radio station donated a fir, with decorations.