The impact of Pasadena firefighters deployed to 2017’s Thomas and Tubb fires went beyond the lives and structures they saved.
By Brandon Lomenzo Black, Images courtesy Battalion Chief Anthony Bagan
In my 26 years as a firefighter with the city, I’ve never seen the amount of destruction in my entire career that occurred in Santa Rosa,” says Pasadena Fire Captain Richard Clark, who has seen much devastation and horror over the years as a firefighter and paramedic. But what happened in Santa Rosa was different. The experience for Clark and his strike team was unlike any other they had ever faced.
The 2017 wildfire season in California was one of the most catastrophic and destructive on record, in terms of total acreage burned and the total number of structures lost. In all, more than 9,000 fires raged across the state, charring in excess of 1.2 million acres.
In recent years, drought has plagued much of California. The heavy winter rains that drenched the Golden State in late 2016 and carried over into the spring only exacerbated the “boom-bust” vegetation growth cycle that inevitably turns into a prime, combustible source of fuel for wildland fires. Very low relative humidity and persistent windy conditions add to the deadly effect. The Tubbs and Thomas fires each demonstrated these deadly conditions to full effect.
In Northern California’s Wine Country, the Tubbs fire, which engulfed Napa and Sonoma counties at the beginning of October 2017, nearly wiped out Santa Rosa. The Thomas fire broke out in Santa Paula and roared across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in early December 2017; it was the largest wildfire in state history until July 2018, when the Mendocino Complex fire sparked.
This is the interweaving story of the experiences and contributions of a select group of Pasadena firefighters who, in conjunction with the Burbank and Glendale fire departments, deployed to the Tubbs and Thomas fires.
Block after block, there were remnants of charred vehicles, chimneys standing without homes to warm, personal belongings consumed, and the memory of what used to be, gone and turned to ash. The fire that ripped through Santa Rosa was unbiased, destroying neighborhood after neighborhood.
One year later, the emotions from that deployment are still vividly clear and equally raw for Captain Richard Clark. He was a rookie firefighter with the City of Pasadena when the 1993 Altadena fire storm broke out. He has since been sent to many more wildfires throughout the state.
“Mile after mile after mile of complete devastation,” he recounts in the quiet stillness of Fire Station 39 in San Rafael. Clark and so many other first responders engines were sent into the fire area to rescue people from their houses. It wasn’t even safe for the police department.”
Raging initially in Ventura County, the Thomas fire, named for the college near where it broke out, spread rapidly west from the outset, then made its way into Santa Barbara County as it continued to burn throughout the month of December. The fire scorched 281,893 acres, resulting in the loss of more than 1,000 structures and the untimely deaths of a civilian and an experienced wildland firefighter from San Diego County.
The city of Santa Rosa was unrecognizable after the Tubbs fire blitzed through. Its apocalyptic imagery dominated the news cycle, with the disaster appearing in newspapers around the country. The Tubbs fire broke out just outside of Calistoga near Tubbs Lane, a pastoral 1.5-mile stretch, home to picturesque wineries whose sloping vineyards are nestled among open paddocks and rolling hills.
Ignited on the evening of Oct. 8, the three-week blaze tragically killed 22 people in the city and surrounding area, and permanently upended many more lives. More than 5,200 homes and structures were lost by the time the final embers were extinguished at the end of October.
Throughout their 14-day deployment, Clark and the Pasadena strike team were dispatched across Santa Rosa to locations along Adobe Canyon and Pythian roads. To accomplish the critical structure protection the team was tasked with they had to dig containment lines through the brush to encircle the threatened structures. “In wildfires, until you get containment … you can never get control,” Clark says.
This fire was so big, so fast, and it overwhelmed Ventura firefighting resources so quickly,” says Bagan of the Thomas fire, “that even as we got there, the incident commanders were telling us that they’re solely focusing on life safety because they can’t even get evacuations in place quick enough.”
The strike team Bagan was a part of spent 15 days deployed, working a physically and mentally fatiguing 24-hour on-the-line, off-the-line operational cycle. “We had a heck of a fight in Ojai,” Bagan recalls. “The wind kicked up and the fire jumped a riverbed at the bottom of a ridge. The fire made a run up toward some mansions and we were able to save 13 of them. Everyone worked very hard that day.”
The retirement community of Oakmont Village lies outside of Santa Rosa off Highway 12 in Sonoma County, and had been evacuated as early as 2 a.m. on Oct. 9. Residents weren’t able to return until Oct. 18. Clark and his strike team were there.
From sunup to sundown, Clark and members of the team assisted Oakmont residents as they unpacked their belongings and luggage from their overstuffed vehicles. They reset smoke detectors and ensured homeowners’ utilities and water were functioning properly, in house after house throughout the sprawling community. Going so far as helping a homeowner with yard work, the team pitched in with whatever they could to assist residents’ transition back home, doing so until the very last rays of light were visible in the ashen-gray sky.
“It’s by far the best day I’ve had in the fire service, and I’ve saved a lot of lives,” Clark says. “It was in the off days of the firefights that we made the difference.”