Last month’s fires that ravaged parts of Northern California burned more than 170,000 acres and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses while claiming the lives of 43 people.
Firefighters from several states were called in to help battle more than a dozen separate fires, including a crew from the Sedona Fire District. Battalion Chief Dave Cochrane, engineers Jamey Kreun and Jeff Scalf, and firefighter Marc Howard left for the fires on Oct. 11 and returned Oct. 23. While there, they were based near Napa.
“Fire conditions when we arrived had moderated somewhat from what most people saw on TV,” Cochrane said. “Having said that, most of the fire line had not been secured, homes were still threatened, and the fire was active.
“During our first shift on the Nuns Fire, we were able to keep the fire from five homes on Dry Creek Road, which is also a road in Sedona, ironically enough. Fire behavior depends on fuel, weather and topography. With these fires the weather was a critical factor with the severe winds they were receiving.”
Cochrane said they never did make it into the Santa Rosa area or the more devastated areas. Due to the trucks that were requested [type 3 engines], they were assigned to more interface-type areas that are much like Sedona. Even so, he said they saw about 40 to 50 homes that were burned to the ground.
“We would be assigned to areas that would have two or three houses burned here and there, or a house reduced to ash between two houses that were still standing,” he said. “It really drove home the importance of defensible space and you could see exactly how the fire reached the structures.”
Cochrane said their thoughts on the destruction were probably much the same as anyone else.
“The scale of the damage caused by these fires was tremendous, but even if only one house burns down and that house happens to be yours, it’s still a huge loss,” he said. “We could only imagine what it must be like waiting more than a week, not knowing if your house survived the fire. Driving through devastated neighborhoods to find yours still standing or nothing left at all must be the highest highs or the lowest lows.”
His crew’s responsibilities varied depending on the day and area assigned. On their first day on the line, they were given the job of protecting homes in a specific area as the fire came over the hill and into a neighborhood. On other days, it was to patrol an assigned neighborhood that the fire crept into on a previous day.
They were there to make sure the fire’s edge didn’t make it into the yards of homes that survived the initial assault. Cochrane said they also hiked into remote areas and mopped up hot spots still smoldering along handlines and dozer-lines that had been put in place.
“I think we were all surprised by not only how fast the fires burned so much, but also the areas in the cities that the fires impacted,” Cochrane said.
“There may be cases in the past I’m not aware of but I can’t recall a wildfire burning down entire shopping centers in the middle of a city. Of course we have all seen neighborhoods in many states that have burned down that are in the interface, but these fires wiped out large urban areas.”
He said the burning buildings actually became part of the fuel that drove the fires. One other thing that he had never seen before on a wildfire were instructions and protocols on how to deal with the possible discovery of fire victims. Many of the areas they were in only had one way in and one way out, with steep canyon roads that could be cut off quickly under those fire conditions.
“It was easy to see how some people were not able to make it out, even if they were told to evacuate and aware that a fire was coming their way,” he said. “Fortunately, we did not find anyone deceased.”
Cochrane said that cities of all sizes can learn something from the Northern California fires in terms of how fast and devastating wildfires can be — even in highly populated communities.
The areas they were assigned to that survived with the least amount of impact were those where work had been done long before the fires happened, he said. This included properties that didn’t have continuous fuels up to the structures.
They also had defensible space for firefighters to work if they made it into the area before the fire hit. Properties and communities that were designed, built and landscaped with fire resistive methods in mind survived best.
“I suppose, especially after seeing these fires firsthand, that under the right conditions a fire could devastate almost any community,” he said.
As he reflected on their nearly two weeks in the area, Cochrane said he wanted to thank the residents of Sonoma County and especially those in the Napa area for their hospitality during a tumultuous time.
“From the morning coffees to the daily encouragement from people standing on the corners with signs of thanks, we felt welcome and appreciated,” he said.
“Finally, as is the case when any SFD firefighter goes on an offdistrict assignment, we thank the firefighters who covered our shifts so SFD never has a drop in service levels.”