Like many people who fled the North Coast fires this week, RedHawk Palleson was awakened at 1 a.m. Monday by the urgent knocking of a neighbor at the door of his Redwood Valley home.
He walked outside, greeted by the glow of what would become known as the Redwood fire.
The flames were getting closer, but Palleson wasn’t immediately worried for his home or his family. He knows fire. He spent three decades fighting fires before retiring nearly two years ago as a captain with the California Department of Forestry.
But then the wind started in earnest. And everything quickly changed.
“It was intense. After 30 years in the business I have never seen anything like it,” said Palleson, 52. “The wind came out of nowhere and started uprooting trees in the neighborhood. It was literally a firestorm.”
He quickly got his daughter, Taylor, and wife, Dee, to round up the cat and the dog and hustle into their vehicles with a few belongings. Dee, staff services administrator for the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency, started driving to safety with Taylor, a student at Mendocino Junior College, following her.
On the way out, a burning tree branch fell on Taylor’s windshield, igniting the plastic grill under her windshield wipers. She turned the wipers on, spraying the windows with cleaning fluid, to keep the flames under control until she could stop at a safe place and extinguish the fire.
Palleson stayed behind. He figured his house could be saved, as long as he continued to douse the embers. As a firefighter, he had a defensible space around his home. He still kept a lawn, even with Redwood Valley water rationing requirements in effect.
“I was actually doing pretty good 40 minutes into it,” he said. “All the houses around me were gone. Our shop was gone. But the house was still there.”
He said he didn’t fear for his life at the moment, but he had to retreat from the intense heat several times and take refuge in his truck. He estimated gusts during the firestorm at 70 mph.
“A couple times I had to run into my truck to shelter in place,” he said. “I got nervous a couple times when I had to move my truck away from the heat sources. It was too hot for me.”
By this time, the front of the fire had blown through his Fisher Lake Drive neighborhood and was 2 miles past him, halfway down West Road. “It hauled ass.”
Fences were gone, houses were piles of ashes. It was a clean sweep. But the intense heat remained as the fire burned everything that was left. Dense, choking smoke swept through the streets. Trees were ablaze, occasionally falling throughout the neighborhood from the wind.
Then the unexpected happened.
“Out of nowhere this elderly lady shows up,” Palleson said. He couldn’t believe she was still there, and still alive. “She had gotten disoriented and she didn’t know how to get out.”
He abandoned his house, aiming to get her to safety. As he drove them through the flames in his truck, he came upon an elderly couple in their bathrobes walking in the road. The pair were moments away from being overrun by a second wave of flames when he picked them up.