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.
“I don’t know how those people made it,” Palleson said.
He opened the door to his truck, feeling the intensity of the fire as a blast of heat and embers swept inside, then resumed their flight. Ahead, a fiery tree had fallen across the road, but Palleson knew he couldn’t stop. He aimed the truck at the lightest part of the branches and floored it, blowing through them.
“After I drove through the first tree, I knew I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I did get nervous. I knew if I stopped, we would die.”
At one point during the escape, Palleson looked in his rearview mirror and noticed flames coming from his truck. Debris between his toolbox and his cab had caught on fire. Palleson found a safe place to stop, extinguished the flames, and returned to the road.
He dropped the first neighbor at an emergency roadblock on West Road, and took the couple to their business in Ukiah. He still doesn’t know their names.
Palleson returned to his home after the flames had died down on Monday to survey the damage. It had burned to the ground.
A day later, on Tuesday, Palleson and his wife were working on putting their lives back together. They bought new prescription glasses. They met with insurance adjusters. They applied for new pink slips for their vehicles from the DMV. They rented a post office box, since their address has turned to ash.
He says they are accepting their loss. Palleson is grateful he had the opportunity to save three neighbors, even if he had to give up a chance to save his house.
“It worked out,” he said. “They would have died, I guarantee it.”
He said there are some silver linings to the fire. His family had planned on building a new home on other property they own.
This might speed up the process. They lost a lot of mementos and important things in the fire, but on the positive side they don’t have to move all the normal stuff or “junk” that is carried from one house to another, he said. They can start over.
Still, Palleson never expected he would lose his own home after all the precautions he took to protect his property following a career in firefighting.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” he said. “It happened so fast. I’m still in shock.”