Tom Butt
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  A Visit to the Fire Area
October 16, 2017

Today, I had an opportunity to drive to Santa Rosa with Richmond Fire Department Deputy Chief Emon Usher and Battalion Chief Marcus Ryaon to check in on Richmond’s mutual aid contribution to the firefighting effort.

Richmond has had one engine and its crew based at the Santa Rosa Sonoma County Fairgrounds base camp for the past week. The engine crew transitioned back to Richmond early today and was replaced by a fresh crew who will be back on the line tomorrow. It is part of a five-engine strike team that on the line 24 hours and then off 24 hours.

We got a tour of the entire base camp that is really a small city with every service needed by the firefighters, including, temporary sleeping quarters, mess halls, laundry, equipment and supply warehouses, communications, mapmaking, sanitary facilities and a command center. Some of the services are provided by government agencies, but a lot are provided by specialty contractors.

The base camp is closed to the public and guarded by armed National Guard MPs. There are several thousand firefighters and support personnel from the National Guard, California Conservation Corps, CalFire, Cal OES, US Forest Service, cities , counties and fire districts from several states and some foreign countries who make this their temporary home.

There are also a lot of prisoners who have volunteered for firefighting duty and are acknowledged to be among the best.

A particularly interesting part is the extensive livestock areas, normally used to support the racetrack and animal judging events. They were full of animals of every type that are refugees of the fire, with lots of volunteers to help care for them. It looked like they were well supplied with hay and other necessary food and water.

Even the vendors have set up just across the street from the fairgrounds with stands selling t-shirts and other souvenirs.

I took a lot of photos, but I was advised that CalFire has a strict policy of no photos posted on social media without CalFire clearance. I was allowed to post the two below that show Richmond’s engine and crew along some of the other strike team members.

The Richmond crew will leave for the fire line tomorrow morning after the 0700 briefing at which they will be given a specific assignment for the next 24 hours.

Figure 1 - Richmond Fire Department engine and crew along with the strike team leader from Milpitas.
Figure 2 - Richmond Fire Department Engine and crew
After leaving the base camp, we drove to the north side of Santa Rosa to take a look at the burned over Fountain Grove area. All the streets were still closed and guarded by armed National Guard MPs. Because we were in an official vehicle with uniformed firefighters, they let us pass without question.

The firefighters told us that looting is a big problem in neighborhoods that are partially burned with many intact homes but still closed.

The Fountain Grove neighborhood s were worse than I ever could have imagined with hundreds of homes totally destroyed block after block. The only activity was PG&E crews trying to restore power.

Again, I took a lot of photos and videos, but policy bars me from sharing them.

Deputy Chief Usher and Battalion Chief Ryaon noted how different this was from typical urban structure fires where the charred framing of homes typically remain after a fire. These homes were totally gone, and burned vehicles were in almost every driveway. There is no way to defend against the type of wind-driven fire that swept through these communities.  The best anyone could do is to simply get the occupants to safety.

Although the fires were out, some of the remains were still smoking.

There are signs everywhere from people thanking all the first responders. As we walked by the animal area of the fairgrounds, a man and his wife ran up and hogged Emon Usher; they just wanted to thank someone. They had fled their home with their three horses, now housed at the fairgrounds. They just opened the gates for the rest of their livestock, including 30 sheep. They hoped that they had found food and maybe water in a vineyard next door. They had not been allowed to even go back to check on their home or their livestock.

On the way home, we stopped a Chipotle in San Rafael to get something to eat. At the checkout, I offered to pay for the three of us, but the cashier wouldn’t have it. Looking at my two companions in uniform, she said, “I live in Santa Rosa, and this is a gift from Chipotle.”

All in all, a very sobering experience, and one that some people are calling the new normal.