LAST OCTOBER (2019) Documentary | City of Santa Rosa, CA

I was actually out of the area
on a hunting trip with a couple of friends. We were up in Modoc
hunting and you know, we’d been planning for the trip for a long
time. It was a good time with our friends. You know, it was a beautiful night.
You know it was amazing. It was a very, very relaxed
normal Sunday. I’d done my Sunday morning chores, which
was some yard work, some watering and kind of settled to the fact
I was going to do a few chores inside and then really
just be lazy. It was a great day.
It was beautiful. My wife and I went out for a walk .Took the dog,
we went to Riverfront Park. and swam the dog, and it was
beautiful and we were walking back to the car and she said I
haven’t felt this content in a long time. I was driving on East Side Road, which is
overgrown with trees and canopy and it was so windy.
I’d moved in the middle lane just thinking well, what if
one of these trees comes down. I could just remember thinking
to myself, I’ve never been in winds like this in Santa Rosa.
The wind early on was so intense that even my heavy
frame, I found myself having to get propped up against my
truck from time to time. We all just noticed it was a
weird night, it was really hot, it was really windy and the bulk of my night started a
few blocks away from this studio actually with kind of a large
fire in a field. Scott Bristow, the captain came
on and said I’ve got a fully involved structure with fire
going down the creek and the fire’s going up into the
backyards of other homes and we’re starting to get multiple
structures going. Almost all the resources for the city got
diverted there. We had 2 alarms so both ladder trucks 6
engines, multiple Chiefs, including the Fire Chief Tony
Gossner, all these people showed up there. It was a challenge to
get that fire under control. From 6:00 PM to midnight, we had
20 reported vegetation fires and 10 reported structure fires. That’s before the Tubbs fire
even came into the City of Santa Rosa Probably like 12:30
it got really windy and she had a water bottle sitting on
the window sill. And it blew off the window sill and hit me
in the head and woke me up and I smelled the smoke. I’m going to
go down to the end of the block and see what’s going on
because I’m worried about the trees. And I got down to the end of the
street and I could see the glow on the hill, so I told her that I
was going to go to work ’cause I had to get, there was a fire engine
there I wanted to get out in case they needed it. The City dispatcher
called me and she when she said she made it sounds so, so big. She said that because the wind
was blowing even our house was shaking, was strong wind. And she called and she said Mesfun
I don’t know what to tell you but the city is upside
down. I went down there. the police was a covering the
streets. The wind was so strong. The minute we put the barricade
the wind blows them off. As I was going over Fountaingrove I made
contact with Station 5 and told the captain, we had a conversation
about we needed to up-staff our reserve rigs and he, Don Ricci
he’s the Captain goes you know, we should really think about all
calling the entire Department. I said that’s a great idea. Recall the
entire Department, we’ll staff all reserve rigs. If we need ‘em
great, if we don’t so be it. It’s the first time we’ve all-called the
department and probably 15 years. When I got that call that
night from the Fire Chief, the first words out of my
mouth: Do I need to get to the Emergency Operation Center, and
he said yes. Even then I really didn’t know the magnitude, but
when I got to the Emergency Operations Center the team had
already set up the entire facility. We were, the legal team was
in the process of drafting emergency declaration for the
city. 78 strike teams ordered,
there was the EOC was open, the
entire Department was called back. So there was a lot of work
before the fire even came in, not knowing if the fire was even
going to come in. I had not seen any flames,
yet drove by a few
deputies that I know and they told me that they were just
doing evacuations. A lot of what we were doing felt
precautionary. I didn’t think in this day and age that a fire
could get that out of control in such an urban area. By one o’clock, a little after one o’clock. I got a call from Paul
Lowenthal who is Assistant Fire Marshall and he goes “We’ve got fire at
Cross Creek. It’s coming up Cross Creek now.” Well that’s the
base of Fountaingrove. It was 1 o’clock in the morning.
I was like “Oh my God It’s already here. How is…”, you know, I
called Neil, our Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, who is
now in the City at the EOC. We need evacuations, evacuate the
Fountaingrove area down to Montecito Heights. Get everyone
out. Pretty soon I look to the left of Kmart. There’s a column
of black smoke coming up. The only place it was over
there was Mountain Mike’s pizza. I said “Hey Mountain Mike’s is on fire,
we need to send a fire engine over there.” We have no fire engines,
everyone is busy. You know, and I called dispatch
and said I “Is there any available resources in Santa
Rosa?” We have zero. There are no available resources in Santa
Rosa. I asked him to do an all call for the entire County. Sent
out a page to the entire County, Any available resource needs to
respond to Santa Rosa for a Wildland Urban Interface fire. We decided to set up at Fire Station 3 in Santa Rosa and operate the
incident from there, and so in helping the chief do that, it
wasn’t but just a few minutes into it there were reports of Kaiser
potentially either considering evacuation or being impacted
by fire and so he said “Hey get over there right away figure out,
let me know what’s going on with Kaiser.” I remember driving the
first part of this loop to try to get back to the
other side to see if I forgot anyone or if anyone needed help. When I first drove past it. I
saw smoke and that was it and then it wasn’t 10 minutes later
when I drove past that it was just a wall of flames barrelling down the side of the hill. Clear public right of way and it doesn’t matter where you
are, you see something down blocking the right away clear it, ‘Cause you never know it
could become a main avenue for evacuation. So I blocked the
fast lane of traffic on westbound Fountaingrove and
started bucking and dragging the trees myself to clear the Lane
of traffic. You know, those people. I would imagine coming
over from Napa County that never have reason to go over the top
of Fountaingrove and then you’re being chased by fire and you’re
being told to get out by EMS and there’s lights and there’s noise
and I even had people pull up next to me when I was actively using a chainsaw and focusing and
there’s loud noise and they were asking me how to get out of
here. You know, and all I could tell them was keep going
downhill keep going downhill. Well, I first learned what was
happening when my son knocked on my bedroom door ’cause I hadn’t woken up with the wind or
anything. I get up, I think the fire is getting close
to our house and I had no idea. We went out in the front yard
and as soon as we opened the front door, we could see the
glow of the fire coming over the Wikiup Hills and I live in the
Mark West Estates area. And the sound was like a freight
train, which we had never heard before I remember seeing a
couple of the officers that had already been doing evacuations
and just to see the look on their faces and knowing what
they had been through. Patty Seffens, I remember her just
having her face was just blacked smeared with just soot. She was
coughing, clearly had smoke inhalation, and then you kind of
just realized at that point like, hey, these guys have, in the
time that took us to drive down to get ready. These guys have
been through hell for the last couple hours before we got here. I got a call from our transit office, that the Emergency
Operations Center had been activated and they needed busses
to do evacuations. I told my wife. I said look, this is bad.
I gotta go in and I got dressed and when I got there the place
was buzzing. There was a few other drivers that had arrived
and the instructions I got they needed buses to go to Mendocino
Ave in Fountaingrove and there would be first responders
there to tell us where to go. I get ready to go to
work after my supervisor gave me a call, came in jumped on the
highway coming southbound and it looked like it was you know
traffic time, like five, six o’clock in the afternoon. You
know just traffic jam and you look up at the hillside and it’s just glowing orange. And it’s
like wow. That’s when it hit you like what is going on. The magnitude of what was going on occurred later. I think once
him and I hit the streets and we actually got out to
Journey’s End mobile home park and I think that’s kind of
when it really set in that this was something just that
we’ve never experienced before. 10-4. How close are you? How close is
the fire is right there in some cases, where it’s burning the
trailer right next door. But they’re hitting each trailer as
they go and leapfrogging through this trailer park trying to get people out. Chiefs says hey, We’re getting reports there’s fire at
Journeys End mobile Home Park can you give me an update and so it
wasn’t just a couple of seconds later was able to come up over
the overpass and I said “Chief, consider Journey’s End mobile
home park a total loss, standby for Kaiser. “ There was a period of time when I was at the evacuation center running
around crazy trying to organize as much as I could. I called my
wife and she said “I’m in the backyard putting flames out in
the backyard” and at that moment I just said leave. Get out of there. Sorry that’s
obviously part of that’s emotional because it’s real. My wife called and we’ve been together, my wife and I’ve been
together since high school. I said, “Hi how’s it going?“ She’s
like “Hey, It’s really bad here,” and I said, “OK, how bad?” she
said “Well, the fire came from Calistoga. I think and there’s a
bunch of fires and it jumped 101, it’s in Coffey Park.” Wait a minute,
there’s a fire in Coffee Park? She said” No, it was a huge
fire and it’s jumped 101. Those flames were literally jumping over 2 lanes of roadway without
even touching the ground. It was like they were just carried
on on a wind that was 10 or 12 feet off the ground. What we decided to do
’cause we have 2 dogs, Let’s just all go in the
truck and so we don’t get separated so we all got in his
truck, and drove down the street and then we saw that it was
bumper to bumper, traffic as we were getting in his truck. I
look down at my phone and I saw that the City’s EOC had
contacted me to come in and work so I’m like, alright well,
let’s go to Finley, and I’ll work. However, when we got on the
freeway the fire had just crossed the freeway. So we were
headed south on 101 and they closed the freeway and they were
making everybody do a U-turn and head north, so I called into work
and said I wasn’t going to make it right then because we couldn’t come south. So when my wife woke me at about two in the
morning. It’s the last thing I’m like what are you talking about
we’ve got this fire going? The fire’s coming our way, and I was
kind of like in denial because I live in Coffey Park area, that
was way over in Napa. That’s not here in Santa Rosa were on the
other side of the freeway. So there’s a little bit of that
disbelief that my wife is saying, “No Tom I’m serious, It’s coming.” Once I got the bus parked, they were just running to the bus
with people, very fragile people in wheelchairs and in different
states of dementia. Most of ’em, probably 90% of them couldn’t move on their own. Many had to be
carried in and it was, it was painful for them and they were
getting rousted out of bed at two, three in the morning to do this.
I turned right on Fountaingrove Parkway again heading towards Mendocino Ave. When you’re
coming down a hill and I got this crazy view
of the Journey’s End mobile home park. The entire
thing was just engulfed. It looked like every single unit in that park was on fire. My primary role was to maintain those stations running.
Once you know that first day I came in and the next day, we
come in and work out, we were working 12 hour shifts so to
come in at 2:00 in the morning and then we’d go around to the
all the different stations to make sure those were running, make
sure we assess all of our different facilities whether it
was a reservoir. Whether it was a wet well, whether it’s a pump station
for water, for the water system or lift station for the sewer system and making sure that the
infrastructure was also you know, there was no broken pipes.
There was no sewer spilling out of manholes. If there was trees
that need to be cut up and moved out of the way so people could
get through just basically drive around and assess our infrastructure. It felt like it was going
a hundred miles an hour, A lot of us had been
working at this point more than half our shift,
our cars were running out of gas. It dawned on me that my house was just a few hundred yards north of where that fire
was headed straight to. 6 hours a week.
My kids were home by themselves. And it was right in the middle of those 6 hours. My engineer Doug
and for my firefighter Rob who came in and they were in right
away right in the early moments of the fire. They said that as
they worked their way into Coffey Park the fire was already, it had
just jumped the freeway and was working its way into Coffey Park,
and to hear them talk about the wind speed and the intensity of
the fire was so great that they both knew that there was really
nothing that you could do with an engine to stop the head of
that fire. The head is being the very tip or the point of the
fire as it moves in one direction. And they knew right
away, which is great. I mean, they made that recognition right
away that if we try to get out front of this we’re going to die
and other people are going to die. The best thing, we can do
is get people out of the way of this because. In the end, you
can rebuild, you could buy new cars, you can do whatever else
and they had that in their mind. But what you can’t do is replace a human life. As I continued up
Hopper Lane. There was the brick
walls and I could look on both sides and see that. Again, every
house is on fire, every single one, and cars are flying past me,
just people trying to get away. I’m looking at it. I’m just
staring at it and going how is every house on fire? What
happened out here? This was the whole neighborhood, everything. I couldn’t see anything that
wasn’t on fire. When we’re waking
the neighbors up there was one lady who was a single mom
and had 3 little kids and she had come over just like 2 or 3
months before and introduced herself and her kids, and left us this
note to read after she left and it said I just wanted my kids to
know the neighbors because my cousin just died in a house fire and if there’s a problem,
I want them to know where to go. So she was like one of the first
things I thought about. I thought about that letter. So we
went over to try and wake her up. And I was pounding on
the door and she wasn’t coming to the door. And I was just telling my wife.
I think I gotta break it down ’cause. She’s not coming out. I
know she’s in there. And all of a sudden everything got really bright.
I turned around and a tree in her front yard had caught on fire. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to fly over and
we were actually traveling with a Batallion Chief and he said
that at one point, he was with his group of firefighters and
they came up on this building that was a care facility. And he said, “We can’t evac
that we don’t have time to evacuate this building and
we can’t let it burn.” And it was, it was a striking comment. On Round Barn we had a building that had 120 people in
it, that we couldn’t get out. So the decision was made moving to
the west side of the building. We parked 3 fire engines on
there with the Battalion Chief and said don’t burn the building
down, if you burn the building, You’re going to lose 120 people,
so that’s a hell of an order. Such a dedicated, a moment of dedication
from his team of men and women that were there to fight that
fire. It was, I think it will always stay with me. Literally running from door to
door, knocking on peoples door and they could feel the fire
coming in, they could feel the heat and it was the glow and the
ember cast. The ember showers just landing on them and them
taking the heat trying to shield themselves as they went from
door to door to try to rouse people and get them out of their
homes. The fire started so late at night that most people were
in bed, which was the worst case scenario. There wasn’t a whole
lot that they can do except tell people to get the hell out.
Save your life. I needed to buy some time to accomplish the
evacuation of Kaiser and there was a last set of homes on
Journeys End that were still there and so we obtained a
fire engine, finally found a fire engine and we cut holes
through the fences of Kaiser, and the mobile home park and got a
line in there and the plan was to just buy time. The minute I got off there was a police, Fire Department, Sheriff blocking the street and I didn’t know what’s going
on, but I could see the fire was burning and my house is like a block from that. So I came to
the police and I said, “I live here, my kids are down there,
my wife is down there so please let me in.” They
said nobody could go because all this place is burned. So my heart was blown. I don’t
know what to do. I was standing, I was crying and all the sudden
10 minutes later. A car was coming from the dark.
So it was my wife, she came out and they were so scared, the kids
were yelling and screaming “Where were you, we almost died” and
blah blah. I was happy, I don’t care whatever they were saying,
I was happy to see them. Once I finally made it to the Finley
shelter. The place was just lit up it was just abuzz, there were cars stacked up on the street
trying to get in and I’ve got a bus full of fragile people. I
need to get off so most of ’em needed wheelchairs and there weren’t any. So they wheeled out
office chairs and just put them in office chairs and use those
to wheel ’em in. It was one of the greatest examples of an
organized chaos I’ve ever seen. There were people everywhere
that were, the uncertainty, the fear the sense of loss and all that. coupled with huge
contingent of people that were just there to help. Did a lot of improvising where we grabbed staff chairs from desks and we
grabbed tables and we ran them out to ambulances and buses an
loaded people on tables and on chairs and rolled them in and
unfortunately kind of laid them down how I say in like almost
a sardine style on our mats just to get it to be able to get
enough people into the facility and in a safe place. At this point, I had watched
the fire kind of crest over the hill and come down into
their backyard. and she went straight back into
the house to get her cell phone for work. You know, I could
appreciate that, she said she was a doctor, I get it and I
went running back in her house to find her and and she just wasn’t going. And I, that’s the one time during
the night it became personal and I said listen. My kids aren’t going to lose
their mom because you’re looking for a cell phone. You couldn’t see. You couldn’t see when they
got into cul-de-sacs to evacuate people they couldn’t figure
out how to get back. Hopefully I can get outta here.
So you know they are asking on the radio. Get me outta here through
GPS and these kinds of things. I went out in the backyard
and I saw a big ember land and start a spotfire so I
grabbed the garden hose, put it out, looked over another one fell and lit, put it out, another
was falling and I just said “This is not going to work” So I just left. There was always concern that the hospital was
going to burn mainly from the roof down. That was the biggest
concern that I had and just being able to pull the evacuation off
in a timely manner was going to be important, but knowing that
we didn’t have the resources to sustain a hospital fire attack in a
high rise. We grabbed all their maintenance staff told em to grab
every fire extinguisher you can find, get up on the roof and stay up there. They were fighting spot
fires on the roof extinguishing those. 2 of our bus drivers,
basically got called in right off the street by just police
officers. You know what? Are you doing? Can I take you now can
you go in here and get people that’s what they did. So we
loaded up patients and staff and took them to the San Rafael Office. They’re standing outside of Kaiser and they’re trying to
figure out how do you evacuate a major metropolitan hospital? We still had a hold that we cannot let the hospital catch on fire.
Same thing was going on Luther Burbank and Cardinal Newman. That
was threatening and Larkfield largely was threatening Sutter
two-year-old hospital. We could not let the hospital burn,
that would be a huge impact for the community. And there were a couple
of their trucks that came in that needed repairs. and we got those going and then
you know it got quiet because everybody was out busy. And the last, it was kind of weird,
the last truck I worked on I had to drive around the
block to make sure everything was alright. Hasn’t happened in a while. I drove around the block to make
sure everything was alright and I heard him call my
neighborhood complete loss. When this thing is moving what
was it, I think as fast as A football field every 5 minutes,
up on Fountaingrove Ridge. For a first responder to
know that it’s moving that fast and still go up there and bang
on peoples doors, run sirens, draw ’em out of their houses. It’s
why I think we have always called public safety workers
heroes. They lived up to that standard above and beyond
on that night. It’s not something you can
prepare for or even train for. You know ’cause it’s not
it’s not a forest fire. It’s a fire in a housing tract,
that’s being pushed by gale force winds. Kent Porter,
photographer from The Press Democrat, who I worked with for
25 years and he said Fountaingrove is gone, and he said, you know the
Round Barn is gone, the Hilton is gone, and he said, I think
Coffey Park is gone too. In hearing those words
it was like, unbelievable. You know they have
a term called area ignition and what that means is when area
gets pre-heated like that, and then the fire moves into it,
It just it’s like an explosion of flames. Just amazing things that
are unbelievable. What we really weren’t able to do, really, valuable anchoring
holding till 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and that’s when the wind
lifted. It was still windy. but the wind shifted up and went
upward instead of down towards us but wherever the fires
edge is we’d hook into a hydrant and we would stretch lines and we
would try to make sure that fire did not get past us. Panels from metal garage doors that had gotten carried in the wind and
ended up 50 or 60 feet up in Redwood trees. It was just the whole image of pure
destruction really. You know it’s one of the first questions
you ask, as a chief especially, Is everybody OK? Do we have
everybody accounted for? We had to make tough decisions to
not get sucked into things burning on the interior because it left
a hole in the gap to allow that fire to continue so we had to
make some big level strategic decisions and then we just gave
those assignments very broad told them what the objective was
and what the plan was and how to box this thing in and let them
do their thing. It was shocking
to wake up the next morning and start contacting the city
offices in the way that I normally would and discover even then it wasn’t contained,
how big it was, and how big it would continue to grow. We found out about 9:00 in the morning that my house was burned
down and my whole neighborhood was burned down, and I was also in
contact with the EOC, and as soon as they found out
that I lost my home and my car and all my belongings, they
knew I had to get clothes and a rental car. I mean, I had a lot
to do, but I really wanted to come to work and see how
everybody was doing and see how it was going at the shelter so
once I found my mom and the kids a place to stay I came to
work. Our supervisor said the backup people
is showed up so you guys could go home. Where is my home? I was standing
down there, everybody jump in their cars, They left. And I was standing down there
and thinking, what could I call home? I was working with
people in the EOC who knew that they probably lost their home,
and they kept just trying to deliver the best response even
through the fact that they knew in their heart of hearts they
had probably lost their homes. For them to know that OK, I got
my family out and I know my family safe now and then they
come back in, to go back into that is most people think it’s crazy, but you know it’s just in
my mind it’s heroic. I knew after a period of time, I knew my wife
was safe and my kids were safe and the animals are safe. They
actually came into the evacuation centers so I got to see
them personally, which was helpful. So once I knew they were
safe and that was safe, nothing else seemed to really matter in
the moment other than helping out these other 700 plus people
that are in the facility and trying to make better lives as
comfortable and safe as possible and hopefully trying to find out
about their loved ones and making sure that again, they have
their family members are safe and, so really I was able to
turn the focus away from myself and just focus on the needs for
the again hundreds of people that were in our center and
trying to make it the best possible experience in a
negative situation for them. It’s an incredible testament to people’s dedication to this
community that you could lose everything. Make sure your
family is safe and then come back and work in some ways that
may have been for them what they needed, they needed to be
able to grasp on to something that’s in their control, versus
not being in control because I needed them here. I need them
working. I needed them being here and also being able to
emotionally withstand that too. That’s tough. Everybody was just dog
tired by day 2 or 3 because they’ve been operating for days
on end without without sleep, Or if they were able to get it, it was an
hour here, an hour there. We had mentioned the local assistance
center. We called it the LAC the L-A-C and that was really an
amazing experience and I spent most of the time I think
probably 2 weeks into the fire for then the next 3 or 4 weeks
there. As we all did we’d rotate shifts and it was just where all
of the different agencies and departments that you would need
to deal with to basically rebuild your life were all
located one spot so the City government departments were
there, County, DMV, anything, Social Security and you could go from
station to station and talk to those people and get
information. You can get your drivers license and things like
that, and as they were ramping that up the people that were
coordinating that would kind of have a debrief in the morning,
and I was right there at the very beginning and one of the
things that things that they told us which I thought
was really thoughtful: Try the best that you can to put yourself in the shoes of
the people coming to see you, they just lost everything, their house,
their belongings, their clothes, everything. Friday morning
I was heading into the EOC and we were getting ready to
evacuate Rincon Valley because of the fires approaching and how people were so tense at that
point that when we issued the evacuation order for Rincon Valley we cleared out the
entire community, I mean, it’s probably 15,000 people cleared
out in a matter of maybe 35-40 minutes. I think everybody that
was in the area, Myself included with my wife calling me going
“What do I pack?” I go anything you can’t buy on Amazon. Even
walking her through that while I’m trying to, I’m sitting at the
EOC working through each one of these problems and everybody in
the EOC, every city employee, everybody that was there was
kind of struggling through some of the same stuff personally. The number of missing
persons and people that reported that were missing and then we
have to try to track people down an coordinating that with the
Sheriff’s Department to figure out exactly how do you take 2000
reported missing people and then start finding ’em so that people
know that their loved ones are accounted for, somebody you know
they knew or what have you. Every time it was a challenge to get your
arms around it. Take care of the problem, work the problem and
then try to get the right resources to it. No organization, no government could afford enough firefighters to deal with
the biggest fires that are going to happen. This one was way
beyond that. But even, even regular big fires. You need
help. If I recall at one point, there were 7 or 8000
firefighters camped out at the fairgrounds. There were hundreds
and hundreds of fire trucks from all over the place. It was the biggest fire camp
they ever made We took over the
Santa Rosa Fairgrounds and we used every
every inch of it. We had crews out there for 4 or 5 days
straight, and that was a challenge. Getting people to
come in especially the the local folks, Santa Rosa and Rincon
Valley and Sebastopol, they were out there for a long time. I think we had almost 150 officers from out of the area on Monday
night and then it grew from there over 250 for Santa Rosa
Alone and what I tried to do in the morning at 6:00 AM
and 6:00 PM is be there to kind of shake peoples hands
and thank them, because they’re coming in trying
to help us get a handle on this thing. There’s no way we could
have done it. Even with I mean, I had over 100 officers almost
every shift working even National Guard when we finally
got a handle lock down on the neighborhoods and getting
control of it, the National Guardsmen that gave up you know their personal lives to
be there and help and stand a post. We went about 2 weeks
where we kept all of the all of the neighborhoods locked down
with the National Guard and we pulled the team together on the
Monday, the 16th, but ultimately It was trying to get about 15,000
people back onto the properties. It was a challenge and it was a
mental challenge and we weren’t quite yet done with
the fire fight on one end because we were still seeing
some movement over on the east side of town, but we still need
to find a way of getting folks back, back to their their
properties. And we really tried to roll up the sleeves to
figure out how is this going to work and how are we going to
make it so that we’re really giving folks that quiet
opportunity without having a lot of bystanders who really don’t
belong there, participating in their in their moment. I drove into a cul-de-sac up on Fountaingrove and there were
4 or 5 cars from a neighboring agency and mutual aid agency and
I’m going “What is going on up here” and I get out and there’s
all these officers digging through the rubble, and there’s a
couple homeowners, elderly, and they found the woman’s wedding ring. And at first as a, You know an administrator or
manager, you’re going “Hey you get out of there. You don’t need to be.”
You know, we need to be doing. But when you hear a story like
that you can’t help but go that that made all the difference
in the world to that elderly couple What I found is all the titles strip away. You’re sitting next to the city
manager who’s in jeans and a ball cap, and you’ve got Ray Navarro,
your police Captain and any other number of people you would
never really see in a setting that informally and yet they’re
just like everyone else and they’re just trying to help people. People that were usually really well put together, were
literally in sweats a baseball cap, but everybody was busily working to figure out how that
room was going to function. We had some training in advance but
honestly, I don’t know what kind of training can prepare you for that. You do a lot of training. But you’re never, it’s never
going to be exactly like that when something happens. I said,
I’ve been through the floods in the River like 10 years, 10
times we’ve activated and it’s different every time. I said you
can’t have a drill, be prepared for every instance. When you look at it from the standpoint, from a Police
Department standpoint, we don’t train to get chased through the
city by a fire. But the amazing things that
employees did are still coming out today. I know the city workers
were everywhere trying to keep up with us, they had
flows coming in as fast as they could turn pumps on keep them
coming, but like take for example, down near Coffey Park
or the commercial area off of Piner at one point I remember
driving by and seen multiple fire engines hooked up to large
diameter hose off a hydrant, a hydrant, a hydrant. Well on a perfect day
with no fire anywhere else. Any water system is going to
struggle to keep up with that. The post office, that made deliveries and figured
out how to provide service in areas that were decimated. The city staff. You know you don’t think about
staff like the water agency staff being a first responder.
They’re not technically a first responder, but their response
was essential. In public safety we’re used to kind
of dealing with kind of the unknown. A lot of other city departments are
not. They’re used to, they have a very structured kind of process
and what have you. But this city and government in
general came together during that period of time to get stuff
done. And I mean, I’ll give you an example, We could not have
evacuated some of the areas we evacuated if our City bus
drivers didn’t get in a bus and drive thru smoke they couldn’t
see to get to us. Couldn’t have done it, we didn’t
have enough people we didn’t have enough resources, buses
showed up, loaded people, got them down. Come into work, jumping in
buses and driving through flames to get people out of
their care facilities. You know. I get paid to
risk my life. They don’t. Those are the kinds of
things that went on every day and whether or not, it was a bus driver, Public Works guy moving
cars, so we could get traffic flowing through an area. Doesn’t
matter, every little bit makes a difference in keeping the
community safe, but when it all was said and done, everybody
showed up. But then you take the recreation and park staff.
Let’s say who work at Finley Center. That turned into an emergency
shelter, so you go to work thinking you’re Rec and Parks. You
do you just manage the facility. Well now all of a sudden,
people are living there. People with different
needs, wants and not a great situation, but they were very
flexible. They made it work and then again. We talked about the
outpouring of community support. One of the first times I drove
up to Finley, the amount of donations. Flooding and I mean,
flooding into Finley center was impressive because everyone
wanted to help. For the first couple of days. It’s like
OK, so how are we going to manage this 24 hours a day without knowing
How long we’re going to be open? So we just had to come up with a
plan. They were faced with a lot of scared people and you know just so much chaos in
the community and I saw them as comforting people and doing a
great job and then not only that, but with you know supplies were running
out, the building had to constantly be cleaned, they
had to come up with a management plan for all the donations.
So not only were they taking care of people. But there were
all these issues that they were dealing with that we don’t
normally have at work. It was a very interesting thing to visit
the shelters during during that time, not knowing what to expect
not knowing where people are in their place. It was a very
traumatic incident for the entire County really, so going
there It’s almost like kind of reverting back to when I was a
cop when you’re kind of deal with people who’ve been
through difficult times. It could be, it could be a house fire
could be the loss of somebody. What do you say, and at the end
it comes down to just being there, It’s just being there, and
giving people an opportunity to share and talk if they want to,
respecting their space and also respecting their privacy. Even
though they’re in this big communal area where there really
isn’t any privacy. But there is still a sense of privacy. Firefighters who lost their home
were still at the frontline fighting the fire, and a couple
nights in I stopped by the union hall in downtown Santa Rosa and
there were a phone bank going of retired firefighters who had
come in specifically to start the insurance process for the
firefighters still fighting the blaze, and it was pretty
incredible moment to see these retired firefighters taking care
of their own and really making sure that they were taking care
of the people were taking care of us. Communities outside like
the County of San Luis Obispo sent hundreds of postcards from individuals, with a
handwritten notes comforting the people that were in the evacuation
center, so that was really nice. And then at some point,
it starts to transition into, This is crazy, like this is
our town. This is you know, many of the people that work with us
that they grew up here. Or they’ve been with us for so
long. They’ve got family in the area. You know, so you start to
look at all the historical landmarks that we lost, or the
significant buildings that we lost. To lose a Kmart in a wildland fire is. It’s crazy, it
doesn’t make sense mentally. Kmart has been completely destroyed. But you don’t really grasp the magnitude
of the fire until after you come out here and take a look at it
in person. It’s just incredible. None of us have ever seen
anything like this. We’re talking to the mutual aid officers that
are coming in and they were saying the same thing. This is
the biggest thing in our careers that has impacted us. It’s really difficult to kind of
find your way around this whole area. We don’t have any more
landmarks, we used to even though you we know the
streets, a lot of times we’re coming into areas and we’re
looking for the landmark so we know a specific house, maybe a
color were coming in here now and we don’t even recognize anything.
Look at this. Fire truck. Is fascinating to me because I
was asking after a couple weeks after. going it would be nice
to hear some of the stories and you know the number one comment
that people made to me? “Nah, we’re just doing our job, It’s all good.” I go, No, You don’t get chased by fire and that’s your job. That’s not
something that we trained for, it’s not something that we do every
day, it’s something that happened. You know, we gotta really kind
of try to acknowledge that. It was terrifying and that’s the
one thing I had mentioned the chief when he was asking about
stories and we’re not getting a lot back from officers. I pulled him aside and said it’s
because if we admit that we were pretty scared because we weren’t
trained for it. We weren’t even really. We didn’t even have a
protective equipment. We really did need and that’s OK. It
worked out, but I mean, if we are honest, we were, this was a
terrifying thing. We lost 24 people and the reason why we
didn’t lose more is because the community really came together
and helped each other get out. Whether it was, they didn’t even
live in the area. I’m hearing a fire I better called my friend Joe
and hey, there’s a fire and what there is? I don’t know how many
stories I heard about that, Or Facebook or text message or pick
something. We can’t do it by ourselves, police and fire and
with something that large. There’s just there’s no way. I can’t think of one instance for weeks, if not a couple of months
from the start of the fire, 2 months out where I didn’t have
an interaction with anybody, whether it was a coworker,
whether it was supervisor, whether it was somebody a member
of the public, that wasn’t completely generous, patient,
thoughtful, kind, everything was focused on this. It was across
the board. I can’t think of one instance, where anyone said.
Yeah, that’s too bad, but what about me and I need to get back
to my own thing. To be honest with you I hear a lot about first
responders first responders first responder. But the reality
is if you’re a neighbor and you’re knocking on doors. That is a first responder. That
helped get people out that woke somebody up, who probably woke
somebody else up. We could have done it without
it, we would have this disaster would have been much, much worse
in terms of life. If it wasn’t for all the people pitching in,
not just Santa Rosa Police Department or the Fire
Department of the Sheriff’s Department, CHP. It was everybody. One of the things I did was I went to Elsie Allen
High School, where folks were taking shelter. I think there
were probably more volunteers than there were evacuees. People just wanting to help. I went in and I was talking to
Mary Gail Stablein, the Principal of Elsie Allen High
School. She was there at the shelter and 2 men came in and
said that they had, they wanted to bring some pizzas to the shelter. And she said sure we’ll
take whatever you got and they said, Will 75 pizzas be enough? And so I asked them, You know
where you’re going to get 75 pizzas? And they said well,
we’re Mountain Mike’s. They lost one of their
restaurants in the fire up by Kmart. So here they are, they’ve
just suffered a serious blow to their business. And they’re going
around asking How many pizzas do you need? Dozens of community members
driving around in their personal vehicles with brown bag lunches that them and their kids made
And I could just picture this family with jars of peanut
butter and jelly and bread spread all over the counter like
an assembly line, making as many sack lunches as they could and
just driving around giving them to our National Guard soldiers
our police officers, deputies. allied agencies, just making sure we
were taken care of. I was out kind of in the Rincon Ridge part, this person
flag me down and said, We need help. Well, there’s there’s a
cat in the storm drain and someone needs to rescue the cat
and about the time that I’m sitting in my car trying to
figure out which number I’m going to call here comes the guy
from the neighboring property with a ladder and they plug in
and start going down and then they rescue this cat that had
been down there, before I even was able to get someone on
the line to get someone over there to help and assist them. People were
definitely there to help other people. For our department the message from the top all the way down is anything and everything you can
do to help facilitate housing development, do it. Our life
really took off. After that because we were front and center
with trying to rebuild so other staff members and we had some
role in it. Had to rewrite the rules ’cause
they didn’t really exist. How do you take subdivisions that were
built en-masse and now rebuild them one lot at a time where
everybody wants to do something a little differently. The rules
really weren’t set up for that. I think that thought process
started. At that moment. We’re thinking about how do we put the
fire out? How do we help people immediately, but we know there’s
this huge lift that we’ve got to help support the community through. I met a couple of other families up in the Fountaingrove
area. One of them was really focused in on OK, I’m ready,
I’m ready to go to that next step. And they wanted me to
start talking to them specifically about where we
going what’s the next step. Why can’t we get there faster?
What’s the process going to look like? It’s also materials, supplies,
people, so every every as we go through the development,
first where are we getting all this concrete? who’s going to be
able to clear clear these sites? How are we going to do every
single phase? You drive through Coffey Park today
like we did 2 days ago you see a lot of homes starting to go up which is I think helpful it’s part of the
healing process. I see people come back and people move back
in and move on. Talk about bittersweet. Those folks are
out there building their homes and they’re not all the same house.
There’s some real creative changes happening out there, so
it’s bittersweet. You know you still see a lot of clear cut or
charred trees. But the grounds are ready for building but you
can see peoples homes going up. An interesting thing about all of this. We mentioned the
regulations and we’ve revised them. We’ve looked at
alternative ways to re-develop and I think through that we’re
learning lessons, that you always look in the tragedy. Where is
the good? Can you find any good out of it? And if anything I
think we’re showing that we can rebuild, we can build in a
expedited manner and do it in a high quality fashion and it’s
not going to destroy all of the things in the city that we love,
and so hopefully some of those things will be able to translate. And I say hopefully
they are actually, they’re translating citywide to make
development and permitting a better process for people. I’m just amazed everybody is
going 100 miles an hour still. And, I don’t hear people complaining
about it. I see how hard people are working. I’m glad to have a
role, and a purpose, and be able to contribute to the cause and I
think that everybody feels that way. The thing I’m absolutely
the most proud of is that we, the citizens, the community, Sonoma
County firefighters, law enforcement everybody saved lives. I work with the best
people in the world, and to come in and deal with what they dealt
with through that night, my hats off to them. They were truly
amazing. Especially the fact that our communication level was almost zero. Somebody came up to me, who wasn’t from the area after
the fire, but who had been here and was here after the fact to
help us rebuild and get going again. And he did this for a
living. He moved around to disaster ravaged communities and
tried to help them streamline their policy process and and get people connected with
the resources to recover. And I remember that he said that
there was a lot of things being done right. There were some
things being done wrong in this community. But the one thing for
sure was that he has never seen a community as compassionate Santa Rosa. What was really unique was I was seeing the community give to
the evacuation center. It was just amazing to watch the
outreach and the caring within the community. It was also
amazing to see my staff every day just coming to work and
being so happy to just help the people that were there. Some people talk about the first responders as the heroes and
they are without question, but there’s thousands. Thousands of
heroes just in the different neighborhoods, whether they’re
watering their neighbors yard, making sure the 90 year old in
your in your neighborhood is being taken care of, that
they’re getting out safe. Taking responsibility and not waiting
for the City of the County or anyone else to do what needs to
be done, just taking action working together with common goals. I am constantly amazed at the generosity in this
community, I mean just, disaster aside, the generosity in
this community and giving in the community-based organizations
and everything else. During the fires. This community came
together and galvanized in a way I’ve never seen before. I never experience this much love that comes from everybody, and part of
what kept me going is when I see the community. How
much they care. This fire brought love to this city.

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