Weary fire crews do battle one hill, one home at a time
With flames still on the march, the word is: ‘Try to get some rest. Just don’t do it right now’
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 douse the flames surrounding the threestory 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; Johnson’s crew will be here for at least 12 hours, maybe 24, until the 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 engineer, 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, 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 hardhat protects her 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 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 handiwork. “The smoke is going straight up.”
Smoke going “straight up” means there’s no wind, and no wind is good for firefighters.
This fire moves slowly, consuming trees and brush but not rampaging across the landscape as others have done nearby. The neighborhoods are eerily deserted, homeowners having rushed out hours or even days before. Every car without official markings is challenged by police officers preventing looters. There’s a strong sense that the experts are getting this 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 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.”
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.