An aerial view of the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, CA, in October 2017.Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS.
In early October 2017, I was enjoying an annual trip with a group of firefighter friends in Humbolt County, Calif. This group of firefighters gets together around the same time every year for a weeklong getaway.
All of us are either current firefighters or retired from the service. Some work for CAL FIRE and others for city and fire districts. When leaving for the trip we were aware of a potential wind event that was coming, although wind events in October in Northern California are nothing new.
In 2017, however, we had not reached the extreme concern for wind events as we would today. Although the Valley Fire of 2015 was still weighing on our minds, none of us could have expected the extreme wind event and subsequent disaster that lay ahead. What we would be faced with was something that changed most of us forever and affects all of us and our families to this day.
A trip starts as expected
Arriving at the ranch a day early was an opportunity for me and a few others to get the house and ranch prepared for the arrival of the rest of the group. We spent the day splitting wood and prepping for the week to come.
In between stretches of work, we enjoyed the beautiful views of the Humbolt coastal range and caught up on life and family. Throughout the day there were text messages from my firefighter friends at home discussing the upcoming wind event, but again this was nothing new. Although it was on my radar, I wasn’t worried that it may effect or annual trip.
I remember it being warm and breezy, but that just added to my immense love for this area of the state. We went to bed that night with happy hearts and smiles.
Things change quickly
The following day was October 8. I awoke to another warm and dry day with a breeze in the air. Others from the group arrived that day, and we continued to catch up and get settled in for the week ahead.
Although there were many conversations about life and events that had occurred over the last year, I did notice that the wind event at home started to become more of the conversation. I remember listening in on a conference call between chiefs and other officials, and they were warning about the upcoming wind event that was going to effect my home community and department in Sonoma County.
Throughout the day, my anxiety rose a bit as the phone calls and text messages from fellow members started to pour in. You could tell that the event was going to happen and there was some concern. I remember feeling that we would be OK, though, as Sonoma County had faired well over the years with prior wind events.
A night I’ll never forget
That night would become one of the most stressful nights of my life, one during which I would make a switch from firefighter to civilian and forever have a profound respect for those that I serve.
The night was amazing at the outset as we all sat together and enjoyed a wonderful meal. We said thanks to those that made it possible for us to be there and remembered those who had passed.
As the night grew long and people started filtering off to bed, things started to change. Text messages and dispatches started to roll in for wind-related calls, with some related to vegetation fires that had started. We could all tell that this was going to be as advertised, but we still never could have anticipated what was ahead.
My wife had been texting me saying that the power had gone out and the wind had picked up. Losing power isn’t all that abnormal during these wind events, which frequently knock down power lines. Lying in bed, I gave her a call and our conversation mostly revolved around how windy it was and fires that had started around the county. Nothing at that point seemed super alarming, and we hung up with the understanding that we would speak again if something happened or we found out more information.
As I went to sleep, I remember being fairly concerned as my phone kept alerting for more wind-related events. My fellow firefighters back home were in a text chain talking about events that were popping up throughout the county.
Awaking to chaos
A few hours later, I awoke to pounding on the bedroom door from a firefighter friend demanding that I come downstairs. I knew immediately that this was a bad sign. Unfortunately, I learned a hard lesson that night. My phone, which lay on the bedroom floor, had many missed calls and texts from my wife and friends.
My wife’s contact was not in emergency mode, so the carpet floor had muffled the vibrations and I had missed her calls. A quick read of the text messages brought to my attention that multiple large wildfires had started in Sonoma County.
I called my wife immediately and found her amazingly calm. She was in the middle of evacuating as our community and house were threatened by the Tubbs Fire. That was the moment I switched from a firefighter to a civilian, and I can say this wasn’t a fun or comfortable transition. In that moment, I feared for my family and friends, and I got to feel what it is like for all the civilians I have sworn to protect.
All of those fires over the years when I had helped people evacuate or made hard decisions for them. At this moment, I became one of them and it was one of the most stressful few hours of my life. As my wife evacuated, she witnessed our community burning, she witnessed a friend’s subdivision lost to the flames, and she witnessed fire jumping the Highway 101 freeway and burning into Santa Rosa. Luckily, she and my children got out safely.
The response back home
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, everyone was on the phone speaking with their families back home. Many were in the same boat as I was and were trying to make decisions about where our families should evacuate. We quickly made a decision that we needed to return home, so we piled into our trucks, leaving most of our stuff behind, and headed back to Sonoma County.
The four-hour drive was extremely painful, to say the least. Cellphone coverage was spotty so gathering accurate information was difficult. Not knowing the extent of the fire, who made it out safely, and if my home was still standing created a crazy amount of stress.
As we made it into Mendocino County, I witnessed something I had never seen before. While driving down the Willits Grade, we had to pass through the Redwood Valley Fire. As we drove down the Grade, we had fire on both sides of the highway. Normally you would see multiple fire engines fighting a fire that was chewing through homes and threatening Highway 101, but all we saw was a single engine. This was the moment I realized that something was different. Although I didn’t put it all together in that moment, there were so many fires simultaneously burning that resources were just spread extremely thin.
The sun was starting to rise as we finally made it to Sonoma County. The column of smoke ahead was chilling. After getting through multiple roadblocks—the police officers knew we were responding to the fire stations to help—I arrived at my house. To my disbelief, it was still standing, but I could tell the fire was near.
A civilian decision
As I walked into my house, I suddenly found myself in a position I knew extremely well: making the decision on what you’re going to pile into your vehicle; the items you can’t live without. The difference this time was that this was my house, these were my kids’ toys, and these were pictures of my family. That moment hit me like a ton of bricks.
You see, we unfortunately find ourselves in these positions quite often. We help people carry items out of their homes or we often try and save what we think people would want us to save. But on this particular morning, it was my home that was threatened by fire, and I found myself scrambling to gather those important items. As I loaded up the truck and drove away, I remember being overwhelmed by the fact that this was happening to me.
I immediately thought of my fellow brothers and sisters that had lost or may lose everything as well. I found myself in a moment of helplessness, and for the first time I became one of them. I was relying on the amazing firefighters and first responders to give everything they had to save my home and my memories, and that is exactly what they did. As I sit here writing this story, I sit in a house that is still standing because of their efforts.
I am forever grateful for the efforts that saved my home, and it has added another level of respect for those everyday people who are forced from their homes during a disaster like this.
Because of this experience, I will always give a little more, make sure I listen to the people I serve, and do whatever I can for anyone who winds up in these situations. Whether it’s feeding an animal or watering a garden, being stripped from your home and what you consider normal is devastating, and the fear you go through while you are away from that is very real.
We as first responders can help with that and be there beyond just fighting the fire.