As the strike team drove into the Sonoma valley early Monday morning, the glow of fires surrounded them on both sides of Highway 12. Oakland Battalion Chiefs James Bowron and Nicholas Luby headed a team of engines from Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and Alameda County, and they listened to radio traffic describing the rapid spread of fire through the wine country and people needing immediate rescue.
Luby said they arrived in the hills east of Sonoma and were dispatched to Lovall Valley Loop Road where “the fire was quickly advancing into the community.” As they fought to protect homes on the ridgeline, Luby recalls thinking, “Wow, we made it just in time. Ten to 15 minutes later would have been a whole different story for that little community at the end of the street.”
He estimates their team, working with Schell-Vista Fire Department engines, saved 20 to 25 homes in that community the first night of the fire. “Everyone that got out of their homes, within five minutes the fire was upon those homes,” Luby said. He continued, “The wind was blowing, probably 30 to 35 mile per hour gusts still coming through, and it was all hands on deck with the crews.”
They spent the next 96 hours fighting the flames in the hills without a day off, an experience Luby had never had in his 18-year-career with the Oakland Fire Department. Power naps were key, he said. They would rotate in shifts and get some sleep, 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there. The first day firefighters “were struggling to find food,” says Luby. “We kept realizing there was no relief and we were OK with it.”
By mid-week they were told to take a break, but decided as a team to stay and work another day. There was no one to relieve them. If they had left, the fire would get ahead of them.
The Wine Country fires started over a week ago on Sunday evening, with multiple starts happening around the region between the hours of 9 and 11 pm. Towns in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties were affected, with some entire communities being leveled. According to California Office of Emergency Services (CA OES) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) at their peak, the Atlas, Tubbs and Redwood Valley fires covered almost 200,000 acres, and so far have led to the loss of thousands of structures and the lives of 32 people. The death toll is expected to rise as searches for missing people continue. The Wine Country fires now surpass the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, which claimed the lives of 25 people, as the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Currently, according the CA OES, the Atlas fire is 77 percent contained, the Redwood Valley fire is 61 percent contained, and Tubbs fire, which includes the Nuns fire and the area on Lovall Valley Road, is 55 percent contained. Firefighters from Oakland continue to work the fire, and will stay “until they see fit for us to leave,” said Oakland firefighter Manly Ormsby on Saturday as he worked structure protection just east of Sonoma.
Newlyweds Drew and Fernanda Olin, of Petaluma, first saw the fire as their plane, returning from their honeymoon, flew over the valley and into the Santa Rosa airport around late Sunday. The landing was treacherous due to the winds. Fernanda remembers looking at the moon, and right beneath it, the hills in flames. They didn’t know it at the time, but Drew’s parents’ home on Lovall Valley Road was one of those close to the danger on the ridge.
Early in the week, Drew’s parents, Howard, 76, and Selma, 80, had evacuated to safety. But on Saturday morning, the newlyweds had crossed a police evacuation line and walked two miles with a cat carrier to his parents’ home, hoping to find their cat, Golden, and bring him to safety.
“Golden! Golden! Here, Golden!” called Fernanda hopefully as they walked around the property, still hot and smoky from fires that passed through just an hour earlier. Helicopters buzzed just above the tree tops, one after another.
She spotted eyes under the deck.
But it wasn’t Golden. It was a feral cat who had hung around the property for years.
Embers were kicking up in the backyard, as the smoke lingered and helicopters began dumping water close to the home. After an unnerving hour of looking, the Olins considered giving up.
Then Golden, a 13 year-old fluffy orange cat with a grumpy face, peered out from under another part of the deck. Drew scooped him up, hugging him, a huge smile on his face.
Fernanda brought the cat carrier from around the corner.
Drew fell to his knees on the ground, his arms lifted upwards, and breathed as deeply as one can in smoke-filled air.
The next day the couple returned, determined, and were able to rescue Golden from the ridge.
Around 3 am on Thursday, after working fires in another area of the hills all day and night, the Oakland team was called back to Lovall Valley Road to put out a spot fire. It was a “Red Flag” night, a term used to describe weather that could lead to critical wildfire conditions. They took three engines. It turned out that there were actually multiple fires and the wind was howling. By now the team wasn’t sure where all of the fires were, since they had not worked this hill all day.
Bowron and Luby put their teams to work on homes in immediate danger and took a pick-up truck up the hill to get their bearings. At the top of the hill they found a home facing a curtain of fire. There was no way to defend it. They saw a glow coming from the nearby canyon, but it was so smoky they could not see the flames. The glow was getting brighter and coming at them quickly.
It was at that moment “everyone realized simultaneously that we were in a bad predicament,” said Luby.
The division supervisor made the call for everyone to move to the “black,” an area where the fire had already burned up the hill.
Although he thought for a minute about trying to get to the main road to leave, Luby, with Bowron, followed the instructions and went up the hill in their pick-up, figuring that it was probably better to follow everyone and go “where the water went.”
But the engines ahead of them had to stop. The smoke had become too thick and they could not see. Embers were flying everywhere. No one was going to make it to the black.
They were stuck in the middle of the fire front.
“It just became a blowtorch on that hillside,” Luby said.
They stayed in the truck until it was too hot to bear. Luby said as they opened the truck’s doors, the cabin filled with “a blast of embers,” catching the interior of the truck on fire. They sought shelter behind the fire engine, using it as a heat shield. There they waited for the fire to move past them.
“It was just so smoky. It was really hard to breathe,” said Luby
It took five or 10 minutes for the fire to pass enough that Luby and Bowron could move out from behind the truck. As soon as he could, Bowron ran back to the truck and put out the fire that had started inside their pick-up.
“Did I think I was going to die? Well, yeah, the thought did go through my head,” said Luby pensively. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, what the outcome would be.”
Another Oakland engine and one from the Schell-Vista Fire Department were further up the hill on a different driveway and took the same brunt of the fire. They had to abandon their engines and seek refuge inside the homes they were trying to protect.
“It was unnerving, but we survived it to see another day,” said Luby.
Speaking by phone Monday night, Luby was still left wondering how this happened, how they had started with “normal engagement” and then “60 seconds later we were in a blast furnace coming right at us.”
The fire’s erratic behavior caught everyone off-guard. “You read the reports, you read the line of duty deaths,” said Luby. “All the reports will say it happens quickly, and I will attest to that. Conditions changed very quickly. That was one of the lessons I took away from that. When you think things are stable, they’re not.”
“This job becomes real, real fast,” Luby continued. “You always wish you could have done more, saved one more house, been here sooner to save one more life. There is definitely a sense of sadness in how devastating this has been for the communities up here.”
“But,” he said, “We’ll get up in the morning and we’ll go back to briefing and we’ll re-engage in the battle.”