It’s a strange experience for your hometown to be the site of a nationally known natural disaster. Such is life now for those of us in Sonoma County. The wildfires which began late Sunday, October 8, 2017 have touched the lives of all of us in one way or another. Through the tragedy of 1000’s of lost homes and tens of lives, there are stories, many of them, of people acting in selfless and heroic ways. I am aware of a few, and, perhaps as a kind of therapy, will be sharing some of them here.
Late Sunday night, October 8, 2017, I was on patrol in my town during what I hoped would be another sleepy Sunday night graveyard shift. Sunday is my Friday, and is usually pretty chill in my town of just under 8,000 people. Our three bars and 2.2 square miles of streets are mostly empty, as people head to bed early, ready to start their normal work week on Monday. When my shift started at 2100 hours (9 PM), it was unusually warm and very windy. It was weird. As I loaded up my patrol car, I thought and almost said aloud to Ryan, the police volunteer that would be riding with me that night, “It feels like something bad is going to happen.” Little did I know how right I was and how Ryan would end up in the middle of it all.
Despite being a volunteer and only 21, Ryan had been with the department longer than most of the officers. Starting out as a police explorer when he was 14, Ryan had served the department well for seven years. With aspirations of being a cop himself, Ryan had more than proved himself in his role as a volunteer, time and time again. He would be tested the night of the fire like never before.
Within a half hour of starting our shift, we started hearing word on the scanner of various fires in different parts of the county. With the wind and dry conditions, it wasn’t surprising. I radioed to dispatch I had heard of a fire about a mile and a half south of town. The dispatcher stated he was aware of it and advised there were several reports of fires throughout the county. We started hearing those reports come over the scanner. A fire near the freeway in Windsor. A structure fire near downtown Santa Rosa. A fire in Kenwood. The wind had died down in town and the fires were all miles away, so we weren’t too concerned.
That soon changed. We first learned of the Tubbs fire, as it would come to be called, sometime before 2300 hours I think. The Sheriff’s Office dispatcher advised her sergeant that Calistoga was requesting mutual aid for a fire burning on Highway 128, northeast of Santa Rosa. Minutes later she advised a county-wide fire call-out was in effect and evacuation orders were sent out. For the next hour or so, Ryan, my partners, and I listened to deputies go house to house to evacuate residents in the Mark West Springs area. With each passing minute, as updates of the fires ferocity and movement crackled over the radio, it became clear this was no ordinary wildfire. Before long we realized it was headed right toward the area where our K9 officer and a sergeant lived.
We immediately started calling. But by this time it was 1 AM and no one was answering. We continued calling, as the fire moved through the forest and started assaulting residential areas. Finally, I got through to the K9, but the sergeant wouldn’t answer.
Meanwhile, as the fires began to burn their way further into more densely populated neighborhoods, Ryan asked to go to home and pack up some of his things. The on-duty sergeant sent him on his way in an unmarked department vehicle. While he was en route, we continued to call our sergeant in the fire’s path, still with no luck. The on-duty sergeant radioed to Ryan and asked him to divert from his house to bang on the door of our sergeant in danger. Without hesitation, Ryan agreed and headed in the direction of the approaching inferno.
Minutes after sending Ryan on his mission, we finally reached the sarge. His family was packed up and he was dousing the last bit of water onto his roof when he saw the approaching flames. We radioed Ryan he could cancel and get to safety. Moments later, I heard a deputy on the scanner advise the freeway was on fire near our officers’ homes. I radioed to Ryan the freeway was burning and to avoid that area. He was already in it.
Perhaps a minute later Ryan advised there were vehicles driving the wrong direction on the freeway. A moment after that Ryan transmitted his radio identifier, Victor 4. His voice was elevated. Something was wrong. The dispatcher told him to go ahead. Silence. A long, deafening silence. “Go head,” the dispatcher said again. Still nothing. A third attempt to raise him. The silences only lasted seconds, but felt like agonizing hours. Finally, a response–more chilling than the silences. Was that static or wind or the sound of flames? Was he yelling? Calling for help? We feared the worst.
The sergeant looked at me, his voice trembling, “Go get him.”
I ran to my car, threw on the lights and siren and headed for ground zero. I raced at over 100 miles per hour toward Ryan and the fire. Even though they were almost 10 miles away, the ash coming down made it feel like driving through a blizzard. When I left I didn’t know where exactly I was going.
As I ran to my car, the dispatcher was able to raise Ryan again. Another transmission, garbled but clearer than the last. He was panting, but seemed alright. A collective, yet cautious sigh of relief. Ryan had been in an accident, forced to abandon the vehicle in the center median. He was now on foot, making his way across the freeway and away from the fire. He was okay. He was able to give me a rendezvous point I would be able to access while avoiding traffic jams and flames. Several harrowing minutes later and I was able to pick him up.
Just before we advised Ryan he could cancel his mission to alert the sergeant, Ryan had reached the sergeant’s street. He got back onto the freeway, southbound, to head back to the station and soon found himself in the heart of the fire zone. The freeway was burning. The freeway northbound was gridlocked with panicked residents fleeing to safety. Cornered and in fear for their lives, drivers started driving northbound in the southbound lanes. Ryan was able to avoid a head-on collision at first, as he traveled in the fast lane and most of the wrong-way drivers stuck to the slow lane. But suddenly the windshield was completely obscured by a cloud of black smoke. Visibility was zero. The next thing Ryan saw were headlights coming directly at him. He jerked the wheel to the left to avoid a catastrophic accident and plowed into the center median. The car now disabled in the middle of the fire, Ryan had no choice but to abandon the vehicle, flames licking at its sides. He jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran, literally for dear life. His department baseball cap caught on fire and he knocked it off his head. He used his flashlight to flag down a passing vehicle, which actually stopped and picked him up. The terrified driver, seeing Ryan’s police volunteer uniform begged Ryan to drive. “Just go!” said Ryan. They drove north in the southbound lanes until they were far enough from the flames for Ryan to get out and make his way to the rendezvous point. He climbed in the passenger seat, panting and smelling like a cigarette butt. But safe.
As the title of volunteer suggests, Ryan is not paid for the service he renders to the police department. He is paid in experience and exposure to the career he hopes will soon be his own. Many police officers will go their entire careers without experiencing the crucible Ryan experienced as an unpaid helper that night. Without a second thought, he willingly put himself in a dangerous situation to assure one of our own would be safe. Of all the employees of my department working during the night of the worst fires in the history of California, the one who saw them face to face, did so without even the thought of paycheck.