Ex­hausted crews bat­tle a ‘once-in-a-ca­reer fire’


santa rosa, calif. — The fire had al­ready come down one side of the hill and been beaten back. Now, it was back­track­ing across the gully, low tongues of flame threat­en­ing a house with gray shut­ters at the end of the cul-de­sac.

Fire­fight­ers watched the smoke and as­sessed wind pat­terns, rak­ing dead leaves and branches away from the blaze in hopes of stanch­ing its charge once again.

The men, mem­bers of a fire com­pany from the nearby town of Wind­sor, es­ti­mated that they had been awake for more than 70 hours and hadn’t eaten for the first 16.

Like many of the other 21 wild­fires rav­aging North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Tubbs fire has burned

largely out of con­trol for days, stretch­ing fire crews and chal­leng­ing tra­di­tional ef­forts to tame the flames. At least 31 peo­ple have been killed in what is now the dead­li­est wild­fire in­ci­dent in Cal­i­for­nia since 1933, with the fires col­lec­tively con­sum­ing an area larger than Chicago. More than 20,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­ated across the area.

On the ground, though, many fire­fight­ers said they hadn’t seen the news or heard the sta­tis­tics. Most had been on the clock since the fires started on Sun­day night, sneak­ing away for swigs of Ga­torade and 15-minute naps while steel­ing them­selves for a long haul of fight­ing fires of enor­mous size and scope com­pli­cated by drought and de­vel­op­ment.

For them, the Tubbs fire is a par­tic­u­larly per­sonal one. Wind­sor fire­fighter Mike Stor­netta’s par­ents lost their house of 30 years, the home where he grew up, as a firestorm swept through the Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood of Foun­tain­grove on Sun­day night.

“Our first as­sign­ment was two blocks away,” he said dur­ing a pause in pa­trol. “While we were evac­u­at­ing an el­derly care fa­cil­ity home, we could see down into the glow of the neigh­bor­hood where I knew my par­ents lived.”

They weren’t home, but his grand­mother was hous­esit­ting and just barely es­caped. His par­ents lost ev­ery­thing ex­cept the clothes they were wear­ing.

Stor­netta and his crew were fight­ing back the flames at Wood­ley Place, a line of mod­est houses sur­rounded on three sides by wooded hills. The preva­lence of this kind of de­vel­op­ment — a low-den­sity com­bi­na­tion of homes and wild veg­e­ta­tion — has in­creased in Cal­i­for­nia in re­cent years, said Jonathan Cox, bat­tal­ion chief and spokesman for Cal Fire. Called “Wild­land-Ur­ban In­ter­face,” or “in­ter­mix” in fire­fighter par­lance, th­ese en­vi­ron­ments are among the fac­tors that have made the Tubbs fire in Sonoma and At­las fire in Napa so dif­fi­cult to con­tain — along with five years of bru­tal drought, pow­er­ful winds and re­sources stretched thin from si­mul­ta­ne­ous fires around the state.

Although hard-hit Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hoods such as Cof­fey Park are more tra­di­tion­ally ur­ban, in­ter­mix ar­eas are part of an up­ward trend through­out Cal­i­for­nia.

“Ar­eas that would 20 years ago have noth­ing now are in­ter­face en­vi­ron­ments,” Cox said. “Take the sheer num­ber of square acres that are in­volved with in­ter­mix and wild­land-ur­ban spa­ces, com­bine that with the fre­quency and in­ten­sity of fires in­creas­ing — it’s a recipe for dis­as­ter.”

‘A jig­saw puz­zle of fire’

Fire­fighter Josh Peruc­chi thought the house had prob­a­bly been one story tall, perched on a bluff sur­rounded by for­est, with vaulted ceil­ings and a deck out back over­look­ing the green hills of An­nadel State Park in the Oak­mont neigh­bor­hood of Santa Rosa. It was hard to tell now. Just a cou­ple of brick col­umns re­mained, plus a rub­ble of con­crete, tile, metal and the hulk of what was once a washer-dryer. The deck was gone; the hills across the way were on fire. Just beyond the house, scorched eu­ca­lyp­tus trees blended into a tan­gle of burned veg­e­ta­tion, a re­minder that the fire had re­cently been through here.

Peruc­chi and two other men from the Pe­taluma Fire Depart­ment were at the house on “mop­ping” duty, where fire­fight­ers re­visit scenes of pre­vi­ous fires to tar­get still-smol­der­ing hotspots that might throw em­bers and light new fires in windy weather. The evening’s fore­cast called for winds, mean­ing the crew found it­self back at a house where they had al­ready fought a fire, turn­ing their hose on the bushes that cov­ered the still-warm ground and on the house’s ru­ined foun­da­tion.

As they went, they sifted through the bro­ken tile and brick for any­thing they might be able to sal­vage for the house’s own­ers. Peruc­chi reached into de­tri­tus with a puz­zled look, hold­ing up a par­tially in­tact ap­pli­ance.

“Pasta maker,” fire­fighter Dale Keith­ley said.

“Is that what that is?” Peruc­chi replied.

Keith­ley, the act­ing cap­tain, sug­gested that Peruc­chi put the pasta maker to one side; per­haps its own­ers would want to re­fur­bish it. He had sim­i­larly spear­headed the mis­sion to save the burned but in­tact sil­ver con­vert­ible that now sat in the drive­way, push­ing it out of the garage and away from the flames dur­ing the fire that had taken the house down.

Fires move quickly through wild­land, and in the case of in­ter­mix, their con­tin­u­ous source of fuel is bro­ken up only by houses, mak­ing those struc­tures es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to de­fend and those fires es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to stop.

And even though fire codes re­quire houses in in­ter­mix ar­eas to have fire-re­sis­tant roofs, non­com­bustible sid­ing and 100 feet of veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance around their struc­tures, that doesn’t change the ma­jor chal­lenge: Fire­fight­ing tac­tics for veg­e­ta­tion and struc­ture fires are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent, and com­bin high ing them makes their ex­e­cu­tion more dif­fi­cult.

“It’s not just put a line on the ground and the fire is con­tained,” Cox said re­fer­ring to the tac­tic of cut­ting down a line of veg­e­ta­tion to limit the fire’s fuel. “You have es­sen­tially a jig­saw puz­zle of fire and homes and in­fra­struc­ture, all mixed to­gether, and then you add in topo­graph­i­cal fea­tures like slope and hills and trees.”

A hum­bling fire

In early evening, Keith­ley’s men from Pe­taluma joined a group of other firetrucks to re­fuel, re­fill water tanks and await next as­sign­ments in a stag­ing area on High­way 12, a pit­ted field of brown, dry grass fea­tur­ing a line of porta-pot­ties and a few with­ered oak trees. Trevor Hayes, of the Pe­taluma com­pany, napped between the hoses at the back of his truck, his hat over his eyes. Nearby, Engine Capt. Greg McCol­lum of Santa Rosa Fire changed his boots and charged his phone in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a full night’s work.

Even af­ter 24 years, the sheer size and power of the Tubbs fire has hum­bled him.

“This is a once-in-a-ca­reer fire,” McCol­lum said. “One of the other guys said it’s a once-in-two-ca­reers fire.”

He pulled back, cir­cum­spect. “Well, I’m no his­to­rian, but I know a damn big fire when I see one.”

Like Cox, he also saw a con­nec­tion between the growth of ur­ban-ru­ral in­ter­face de­vel­op­ment and the fire’s scale.

“There was a fire that came over the hill [from Cal­is­toga, Calif.] sim­i­lar to the Tubbs fire in 1967,” he said. “Now, the ur­ban in­ter­face is grow­ing — peo­ple moved out here to live in the coun­try. There’s a lot more exposure for struc­tures, and Mother Na­ture doesn’t care.”

The other Santa Rosa fire­fight­ers sat on a nearby stonewall un­der a murky pink sun­set, check­ing their phones and chew­ing tobacco. A pass­ing firetruck honked its horn in greet­ing, and the men waved back and set­tled in to wait for the next call. They knew it was com­ing soon.


An engine crew from Mon­tecito in Santa Bar­bara County hoses down a fir­ing op­er­a­tion in Sonoma.


Crew mem­bers from the Plumas Hot­shots ob­serve fire be­hav­ior while wait­ing for air tanker drops off Moon Moun­tain Road near Sonoma and Glen Ellen, Calif., on Thurs­day. Ur­ban growth in th­ese ar­eas has made bat­tling the blazes more com­plex for fire­fight­ers.

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