Oregon firefighters labored Tuesday over smoldering tree roots along a steep, blackened stretch of countryside northeast of Santa Rosa, part of a second wave of firefighting muscle from 14 states and soon, Australia, on Sonoma County’s deadly fires.
The influx from western states and beyond has swelled firefighting ranks to 5,312 strong from 351 agencies. The far-flung aid highlights the national significance of these blazes, which have wrought cataclysmic destruction, killed 41 people across Northern California and left tens of thousands homeless.
“This is fairly unprecedented for any disaster in California to have all these resources from other parts of the country,” said Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox. “We’re a big resource-rich state. This is a big deal.”
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said he was grateful for the state’s strong mutual aid system in firefighting, with a network that reaches across the globe.
“It means a lot to have that kind of support,” Gossner said.
The gratitude continues from many directions.
Around town, firefighters can’t stop for a quick cup of coffee, bottle of water or a sandwich without a crush of handshakes, hugs and insistent offers of free Joe and food. Some veterans privately admit dropping a few tears in response to the outpouring.
Homemade signs of thanks hang on fences, highway overcrossings and mailboxes in front of destroyed homes. Firehouses have become so buried in cookies, cakes and meals that some supplies have been sent on to shelters and homeless services. One touching mailed-in packet came from Oakland elementary students to Santa Rosa firefighters after smoke blanketed their school more than 60 miles away.
“Dear fire mans Thank You very much!” started one note that ended with a drawing of fire.
Arizona firefighters, on a two-day drive to Sonoma County, got a taste of the love long before they arrived.
“The closer we got to you guys the more people started to honk and wave and thumbs up,” said Beaver Dam Fire Chief Jeffrey Hunt, who was behind the wheel of one of five engines bound for Santa Rosa. “On Interstate 5 we got more and more. On 101 we got a whole bunch of it.”
Out-of-state fire engines now are seen throughout the fires’ reach, mixed in with locals or on their own, holding fire lines, protecting homes and clearing brush.
Washington firefighters Tuesday wrapped up 24 hours working in the hills above Geyserville. Arizona firefighters mopped up hot spots near Calistoga. More Oregon firefighters patrolled Bennett Valley and Kenwood, and Alaskan fire service workers helped keep supplies moving.
About 20 Australian firefighters are due in Santa Rosa today. They’ll be outfitted with safety gear, briefed and acquainted with local firefighting verbiage to make sure conversions such as hectares to acres are clear.
“We want to make sure we’re all talking the same language,” said Gossner.
Thursday they’ll be sent to a fire. It’s a reciprocal program with Cal Fire officials who have sent firefighters to the distant continent to help on their giant wildfires, Gossner said.
A group of Canadian firefighters also are making their way to Northern California this week but Tuesday it wasn’t clear if they would be assigned to Sonoma County’s fires, a state official said.