Overwhelmed by spot fires in bone-dry pine needles and leaf litter at their feet, a Cal Fire captain and three firefighters retreated to a patch of bare earth on a Cobb Mountain ridgetop during the first hour of the voracious Valley fire on Sept. 12.
But they were not safe for long in the fenced goat pen where they took refuge. The wind picked up, the spot fires multiplied and one man saw the flames “sheeting and swirling” across a nearby driveway.
Then, a brush-covered slope “torched into a wall of flame,” according to Cal Fire’s first published report on the blaze that killed four people and charred 76,067 acres in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties.
The flames “sent a significant wave of radiant heat” over the four members of the Boggs Mountain helitack crew at about 2 p.m., less than a half-hour after they had landed and set out to protect structures from a growing inferno. “They could feel their faces burning from the radiant heat,” said the report, which was posted Saturday on the blog wildfiretoday.com.
The four men ran to a fence, climbed over it and raced toward a steel garage on the property in the 15100 block of Bottle Rock Road near Cobb, deploying their portable fire shelters near the metal walls. The captain put out a mayday call over the radio.
In vivid detail, the report — called a green sheet — describes how one firefighter had to remove his gloves to tear the melted plastic covering away from the aluminum shell of his shelter. Another firefighter couldn’t get his shelter out of its case because the plastic cover had melted and fused to a white plastic protective sleeve.
He dropped it and ran to his colleague, and both men crouched under the first firefighter’s shelter.
(To view the report, click here.)
The four men huddled together on the north side of the garage, “shielding the heat away from their already burned faces and hands,” the report says. “Each of them could see the visible burns to one another’s faces and hands.”
Capt. Pat Ward was the leader of the fire-besieged team described in the report, Janet Upton, a Cal Fire deputy director, said Saturday.
The three firefighters were identified as FF3, FF4 and FF5, and Upton confirmed they were Firefighters Niko Matteoli, Richard Reiff and Logan Pridmore, but she could not say which man was which.
The four were taken by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Matteoli and Pridmore have been released and have returned to their homes, Upton said. Reiff is out of the hospital’s burn unit and is expected to be released soon, she said.
Ward remains in the burn unit, listed in critical condition but improving. “He has a long road to recovery ahead of him,” Upton said.
Matteoli, 23, of Santa Rosa comes from a line of Cal Fire firefighters in Sonoma County, including his great-grandfather, grandfather and grandmother. He started fighting fires five years ago and told a relative, while still in his hospital bed, that he was determined to continue his career.
On Saturday, the Valley fire was 97 percent contained with a crew of fewer than 400 working mostly on mop-up operations.
The report’s fire narrative says Ward repeatedly requested water bucket drops by their helicopter “to cool the atmosphere.” One firefighter attempted to drink from a hydration pack but found the water from the mouthpiece was “too hot to drink.”