The Bay Area has mobilized to help this week as numerous wildfires tear through Northern California wine country, and Berkeley first responders have been among those offering aid.
One Berkeley firefighter’s home was destroyed Monday in the Santa Rosa blaze, and other police and firefighters have felt the impacts firsthand, too, being evacuated and taking what steps they can to save their property. Sixteen fires have claimed the lives of at least 17 people and destroyed 2,000 structures, the LA Times reported late Tuesday. Some 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone. More than 20,000 people initially evacuated, and spotty cellphone service due to damaged transmission sites has made it difficult for the displaced to communicate.
“I’ve been to some really bad places and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen damage like this,” said Berkeley Police Sgt. Andrew Frankel, who responded to the area to help as part of a BPD mutual aid team. “It’s what I would imagine the end of the world looks like.”
Authorities have also issued a “red flag” warning in Berkeley for Wednesday night through Thursday afternoon as northerly winds are expected to “combine with dry fuels to produce critical fire weather conditions.” The Berkeley Hills are particularly vulnerable, and the city has posted wildfire evacuation information online.
Berkeley police officers, dispatchers and firefighters headed up to the North Bay on Monday, and 14 officers spent the day in Santa Rosa on Tuesday helping out with general police services. Three on-duty Berkeley firefighters who responded up north Monday were replaced by four others Tuesday, officials said. Those mutual aid efforts are expected to continue over the next few days at least.
The police and fire teams happened to cross paths Tuesday, and both helped an elderly couple get into their apartment to access critical medication inside. The couple also needed to check on their cat, which had been left behind.
“No power inside the apartment, completely dark hallway,” wrote Police Lt. Andrew Rateaver in an email update to the department Tuesday. “To our surprise and appreciation, Berkeley Fire Engine 6 was parked out front of this apartment complex. We made entry, and using our flashlights, made our way through the dark and smoky hallways to the apartment… The elderly couple and her son-in-law were able to gather up the needed medication and check on the welfare of their cat.” (Further information about the cat was not available as of publication time.)
Firefighter’s home burned, many others evacuated
Berkeley Fire Capt. Warren Davis was awoken at 2 a.m. Monday by the smell of smoke outside his home in the Santa Rosa area. Acting Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said Davis got out his garden hose and shovel, and cleared significant space around the home as the fire drew closer. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “as many as seven blazes started almost simultaneously Sunday night amid powerful winds, with gusts of up to 70 mph.” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea told the Chronicle they were “not just ordinary fires. Because of those wind conditions, these fires got out of hand very quickly.”
“Somehow he managed to save it,” said Brannigan, of Davis’s home. What later became known as the Nuns fire came up around the hill where the home sits, leaving broad swaths of scorched earth outside. Tuesday afternoon, however, the fire was reportedly growing again, and threatening the area, Brannigan said.
Cell service and other communication lines have been severely impacted by the fires, he noted. Another Berkeley firefighter who was evacuated had to use his radio to call in to Berkeley dispatchers Tuesday to let them know he wouldn’t be coming into work. There was no other way he could get the message through.
Brannigan said BFD has about 15 firefighters who live in or around Santa Rosa. Many were evacuated as a result of the fires. Some had returned to work Tuesday, while others were still having to deal with the aftermath. Most had been able to get back into their homes.
One Berkeley firefighter, Josh Block, was not so lucky. Block lives in the Santa Rosa area in a home with his twin brother, Zach, and Zach’s wife and young daughter. Their house burned to the ground. A GoFundMe page has already raised more than $27,000 to help the family, but has a long way to go to reach the $50,000 goal.
“They were forced to leave with nothing more than the clothes on their back in the middle of the night. They are a young family just starting out and it would be so great to help them with clothing, necessities etc. until they get on their feet. Their hearts are broken due to this total loss,” according to the GoFundMe page.
Chief Brannigan said Berkeley Fire first got the call Monday morning from Napa County asking for help from anyone BFD could spare. Initially, BFD had to decline the request due to Berkeley’s own grass fire in Tilden, which had just begun.
“We were throwing everything we had at that, and couldn’t spare anybody,” Brannigan said. Once that was under control, however, three Berkeley firefighters were released with an engine to join a strike team from San Francisco. They went to Santa Rosa and started fighting fire right away, the chief said. He described the “immediate need” request as a “pick up your stuff and go” situation.
Generally, for an out-of-county deployment, BFD has a volunteer list it draws from. So the next step was to put together a replacement crew of volunteers. That team went up Tuesday and replaced the on-duty firefighters who initially answered the call. The city still has sufficient resources to staff its firehouses locally, however, because the resources up north are extra.
“We have not decreased our fire capacity here at all,” the chief said Tuesday.
Fire chief: Give money rather than goods
“A lot of people want to give stuff, but stuff is really a problem in emergencies if a place doesn’t have the ability to deal with it,” he said. “It’s better to give money to the organizations there helping rather than actual goods.”
Brannigan said there have been at least five named fires in the North Bay, and that shifting weather conditions this week have made for a very fluid situation.
“This will probably rival the Berkeley and Oakland hills fire in terms of damage and structures lost,” he said. The 1991 firestorm took the lives of 25 people and injured 150. Damage estimates exceeded $1.5 billion: Nearly 3,400 houses were destroyed, as well as more than 400 apartments.
Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said, in an email to the department Tuesday, that he knew of at least one BPD family who had to evacuate, and several others who came close. He got word from an officer who recently left the department that she also had to evacuate but was safe. She told him she had plans to drive back Tuesday to see her house, but heard it had been spared.
“The fire came within a half a mile of our neighborhood,” she wrote, adding how much it had meant to her to see BPD officers in the area to help. “We were driving out in the early morning hours after evacuating, my whole family in a 3 car caravan. We were terrified of what was happening and the destruction we saw. Then, we saw Berkeley PD driving up code 3 [emergency status] on hwy 101, it brought a tear to my eye to see my old department coming up to help.”
Police Lt. Rateaver reported, in a written update earlier in the day, that Berkeley officers are working in tandem with Santa Rosa officers, and have been given Santa Rosa radios so they can be sent to calls.
“Since cellular service is spotty, we are using whatever apps work, as well as street maps obtained at a local gas station,” he said. “We are responding to regular calls for service as well as to structure protection from looting.”
For part of the day Tuesday, officers helped guard a commercial gun retailer: The building had been destroyed but several safes had been left “vulnerable and visible.”
“We are providing water, information and security and on the occasion, giving homeowners transportation into and out of the burn areas. Mostly this is being done because they walk into the areas, then become emotionally overwrought, and are walking through a maze of burned out structures and downed electrical wires. For their own safety, we are collecting them and transporting them out as conditions dictate,” Rateaver wrote. “I am honored to be with such a large contingent of BPD officers. Working alongside other agencies like Benicia, ACSO, El Cerrito, Oakland, Martinez, and Kensington. Each are hardworking, energetic and want to do a good job up here in this time of need. Each of us up here knows that we could not be up here without the support of our crews and families back home as well.”
Another 12 BPD officers plan to drive back to Santa Rosa on Wednesday to continue to help. Chief Greenwood said mutual aid costs are likely to be fully reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency this week in nine California counties due to fire, and President Donald Trump approved a “major disaster declaration” Tuesday to help the state respond.
Police Sgt. Frankel said he had been humbled Tuesday by the gracious response of the community despite the ravages of the fire.
“They’re standing on piles of debris and they’re coming over to make sure that we have everything we need,” he said. “They’re with pick and shovel in hand, and pausing to make sure that we’re taken care of. And these are people who’ve just lost every worldly possession.”
Frankel said the fire burned so hot it left puddles of aluminum, from melted rims, around what was left of some car tires. He saw block after block of still-smoldering, still-burning landscape.
“You’ll look at one block and you’ll see half the houses on the block are burned to nonrecognition,” he said. “Some of the chimneys and some of the stonework are there, and then two houses almost completely untouched. And then another block of complete devastation.”
At one point Tuesday, Frankel said a team of Berkeley police officers came across residents who were worried about their cats: “In the haste to leave, some had left pets behind and were concerned about their welfare,” he said. The officers saw them again later in the day, and they were standing around a car — the only one around that hadn’t burned — because a cat had crawled up into the engine for safety.
“About five of us were trying to help them get the cat out from underneath the car,” he said. It took perhaps 15 minutes, but they managed to get it into a travel crate. The officers provided medical care to one person the cat had scratched numerous times during the rescue effort. Then they turned the cat over to animal control.
Frankel said, throughout the day, many Santa Rosa first responders repeatedly thanked Berkeley for showing up to help. And his response was the same every time: It’s not a question of “if” but one of “when” — as to when Berkeley is likely to need the support of agencies from places such as Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties to get through its own large disaster.
Frankel said it had been an emotional day for many who are struggling to come to terms with the aftermath, and continuing developments, of the fires. Part of BPD’s job, he said, was to keep people out of dangerous areas until it was safe to go in, and to keep neighborhoods secure from the looting that has been happening. Even though people were respectful, those interactions weren’t always easy.
“They’re literally looking at scorched earth behind us knowing nothing is left of their homes, and hoping to get something from the wreckage,” he said. “That last bit of hope that somehow some family heirloom survived. They want to recover it before somebody steals it.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “More than 200 officers from neighboring agencies are helping patrol Sonoma County to prevent looting. While Santa Rosa will continue to enforce a curfew, one is not in place countywide.”
- Read more about red flag warnings on the Cal Fire website
- City of Berkeley resources about wildfire evacuation
- Make sure you’re signed up for local email and text alerts about critical incidents
What’s on fire?
Cal Fire said Tuesday night the Tubbs and Pocket fires, also known as the “Central LNU Complex,” are being overseen by Cal Fire’s Incident Management Team 1 and the city of Santa Rosa: “Both fires continued to remain active. Firefighters are working in environments with downed powerlines [sic], hazardous conditions and drought stricken trees. Increased onshore flow brought minor relief with slightly cooler weather, although we experienced an increase in fire activity due to light winds in the afternoon hours. Red Flag conditions are expected to continue through early Thursday morning.”
- Tubbs fire (Napa County): 28,000 acres, 0% containment, as of Tuesday at 9:37 p.m. There have been 571 structures destroyed (550 residential and 21 commercial), according to the Cal Fire website, and more than 16,000 are threatened. Updates related to evacuation orders, water safety, shelters, volunteering and more are being posted on the Santa Rosa city website.
- Other fires: There’s also the 500-acre Pocket Fire in Sonoma County farther north near Geyserville. To the south in Sonoma County, west of Skaggs Island, the “37” fire has burned 1,650 acres and was 65% contained as of Tuesday night. Up in Mendocino, there are the Redwood and Potter fires, while Lake County has the smaller Ridge and Sulphur fires.
Cal Fire said the Atlas, Nuns and Partrick fires, also known as the “Southern LNU Complex,” are being managed by Cal Fire Incident Management Team 3 and the Napa County Sheriff’s Department: “All three fires experienced fire growth as a result of anticipated wind conditions. Forecasts include a change in wind speed and direction in the days to come. A Red Flag Warning continues to exist over the fire area. Firefighters continue to take suppressive action and additional resources from across the state are enroute [sic] to provide assistance.”
- Atlas fire (Southern LNU Complex in Napa and Solano counties): 26,000 acres, 3% contained, as of Tuesday at 9:02 p.m. There have been 125 structures destroyed, and 5,000 are threatened. See the latest updates on the Cal Fire website.
- Nuns Fire (Southern LNU Complex, Sonoma County): 5,000 acres, 1% contained, as of Tuesday at 8:56 p.m. There are 5,000 structures threatened. See the latest updates on the Cal Fire website.
- Partrick Fire (Southern LNU Complex, Napa County): 6,000 acres, 1% contained, as of Tuesday at 8:59 p.m. There are 5,000 structures threatened. See the latest updates on the Cal Fire website.