Fire­fight­ers de­fend one home at a time

Yel­low-shirted crews try to hold the line against in­cen­di­ary on­slaught creep­ing closer

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Trevor Hughes @trevorhughes USA TO­DAY

KEN­WOOD, CALIF. With hand tools and hoses, fire­fight­ers across Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try bat­tle flames in a fight that sees the yel­low-shirted line win most of its chal­lenges but suf­fer emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing losses.

Fires have raged across Napa and Sonoma Coun­ties for days, driven by strong winds and high tem­per­a­tures. More than 20 peo­ple died in blazes that con­sumed more than 3,000 homes, busi­nesses and other build­ings.

En­tire neigh­bor­hoods of nearby Santa Rosa have been wiped off the map, but thou­sands of fire­fight­ers have poured into the area to push back the flames.

On a tiny road up a canyon above the Kunde Win­ery, fire­fighter Dar­rell John­son and a hand­ful of col­leagues are the last de­fense be­tween a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar home and a fire that doesn’t care about in­come brack­ets. They draw wa­ter from the man­sion’s out­door pool to quench the flames sur­round­ing the three-story house and its four-car garage.

“I feel bad we kinda de­stroyed their lawn,” John­son says with a laugh, point­ing at the ruts caused by the firetrucks turn­ing around in the steep, nar­row drive­way. “I hope they for­give us.”

This night, John­son and his team keep this house from burn­ing down, pro­tect­ing the prop­erty of peo­ple they’ll prob­a­bly never meet. The home was aban­doned by the res­i­dents who left un­der a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der, and John­son’s crew will be here for at least 12 hours, maybe 24, un­til the fire dan­ger passes. They’ll hud­dle in the truck if things get too cold or just sack out on the ground from the sheer ex­haus­tion of work­ing 24-hour shifts.

“Try to get some rest,” John­son, a vet­eran fire­fighter and en­work. gi­neer calls out to the crew. “Just don’t do it right now.”

At that mo­ment, flames be­gin climb­ing out of the canyon be­low, flar­ing into the trees and bushes on the home’s right flank. A line of fire creeps down the hill on the left-hand side of the house.

Any em­ber that lodges in the home’s sid­ing or deck could be the spark that ig­nites the home, and that’s what these fire­fight­ers, called down from Fresno, are here to pre­vent. Un­like a hur­ri­cane or tor­nado, a wild­fire can pass through the same area mul­ti­ple times in an ex­haust­ing dance that forces fire­fight­ers to al­ways know their es­cape routes.

Paige Madrid, in her fourth year as a wild­land fire­fighter for Cal Fire, faces the flames head-on as they climb the hill. En­try-level fire­fight­ers earn about $15 an hour, al­though over­time and ex­tra-duty as­sign­ments can boost that sig­nif­i­cantly. “I like the chal­lenge, the phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenge,” says Madrid, 27. “And I like know­ing I’m help­ing peo­ple.”

Madrid opens her hose and drenches the ap­proach­ing fire, the wa­ter mak­ing a sat­is­fy­ing hiss as it hits the hottest ar­eas, soft­en­ing to a squish as it soaks the ground and bushes. Sparks that might fall on her snuff out on her yel­low fire-re­sis­tant shirt, and a hard hat pro­tects her head from fall­ing de­bris.

John­son walks over to check Madrid’s work, cau­tion­ing her to watch her foot­ing on the steep hill­side — it’s pitch black save for the light cast by the burn­ing bushes — and to check the fire’s over­all progress.

It’s un­clear Tues­day night which wild­fire these flames be­long to, and au­thor­i­ties haven’t said how the fires started. Cal Fire, the statewide fire agency, em­ploys about 8,000 full-time and sea­sonal fire­fight­ers, the vast ma­jor­ity of them work­ing off en­gines like John­son and his crew. “So far, so good,” John­son says as he watches Madrid’s handi- “The smoke is go­ing straight up.”

Smoke go­ing straight up means there’s no wind, and no wind is good for fire­fight­ers. Fore­cast­ers pre­dicted the winds will pick up within a few hours, and ev­ery­one anx­iously watches for a shift in the weather.

This fire moves slowly, con­sum­ing trees and brush but not ram­pag­ing across the land­scape as oth­ers have done nearby. The Kunde Win­ery looks likely to es­cape all dam­age, a story re­peated across the area: Vine­yards tend to be on the flat­ter por­tions of the val­leys, while homes are of­ten perched on nearby hill­sides, mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to ad­vanc­ing fires.

Ge­og­ra­phy plays an im­por­tant role in how fires spread. Nor­mally, they burn ag­gres­sively up­hill, and can throw em­bers a mile or more across ridge tops.

Fires burn down­hill slowly, es­pe­cially with­out wind. Tonight, the wind re­mains calm, and the tem­per­a­ture falls un­ex­pect­edly low, drop­ping be­low 50 de­grees by mid­night, then around 40 de­grees by 2 a.m. Cooler weather re­stricts fire growth, which is good news for John­son and his team, since they’ll spend at least the next 12 hours pro­tect­ing these strangers’ home.

The neigh­bor­hoods are eer­ily de­serted, home­own­ers hav­ing rushed out hours or even days be­fore.

The evac­u­a­tion zones are ef­fec­tively de­serted, and ev­ery car with­out of­fi­cial mark­ings gets chal­lenged re­peat­edly by po­lice of­fi­cers pre­vent­ing loot­ers. There’s a strong sense that the ex­perts are get­ting this sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol.

Not ev­ery home­owner will be as lucky this night.

A few miles away in the golf club com­mu­nity of Oak­mont, de­jected fire­fight­ers watch as a house burns to the ground, rafters drip­ping fire, the rooftop satel­lite dish wilt­ing and col­laps­ing. They de­cline to be in­ter­viewed, up­set at their fail­ure to pre­vent catas­tro­phe for the home­owner.

The home sits atop a hill over­look­ing the rest of Oak­mont, and fire­fight­ers watch it care­fully as it burns. Mod­ern homes are stuffed with petroleum prod­ucts that burn fiercely, and if one house goes up, the in­tense heat it throws off can cause neigh­bor­ing homes to burn in a hor­ri­fy­ing chain re­ac­tion. The fire­fight­ers from Santa Mon­ica and Windsor must watch the fu­neral pyre for this house un­til the dan­ger passes.

Back in Ken­wood, Madrid says she’s proud of her work.

“If I faced some­thing like this, I would want ev­ery­body help­ing me out,” she says. “I’d want them to do ev­ery­thing they could for me. So I’m do­ing ev­ery­thing I can do for them.”

Mod­ern homes are stuffed with petroleum prod­ucts that burn fiercely, and if one house goes up, the in­tense heat it throws off can cause neigh­bor­ing homes to burn.

TREVOR HUGHES, USA TO­DAY

Fire­fighter Eric James hoses off the roof of a home Tues­day near Ken­wood, Calif., as a wild­fire ap­proaches. A stray em­ber could be the seed of wide­spread de­struc­tion.

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