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Firefighters from across nation lend welcome hand battling Sonoma County fires

Signs are appearing all over Sonoma County, especially at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, thanking first responders. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

RANDI ROSSMANN,

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.

Sonoma County’s call for outside help launched dozens of strike teams as officials mobilized firefighters from throughout California and western states. Many drove non stop to reach the fires.

In Oregon, Sonoma County’s call was a chance at repayment of sorts. California firefighters, including some from Sonoma County, went north earlier this year to bolster efforts on Oregon’s run of destructive fires.

“Our folks really appreciated it,” said Jim Walker, Oregon state fire marshal. “When the call came out for this incident, instantly we filled the first 10 strike teams requested in a two-hour time period.”

In all, 75 engines, 15 other fire vehicles and 288 Oregon firefighters headed for Santa Rosa, driving all night to be on fire lines last Thursday morning. Oregon’s state forestry officials sent additional firefighters and equipment.

Firefighters in less-populated states are familiar with massive wildland fires gobbling up thousands of acres, but not the urban devastation and levels of evacuations they have faced here.

“Rolling in here and seeing the devastation and the amount of damage to the community was incredible,” said Eugene and Springfield fire Battalion Chief Lance Lighty. His Oregon strike team on Tuesday was putting out hot spots in Kenwood and Bennett Valley. “I can see why they had their hands full.”

John Wooten of Lane County is another Oregon battalion chief leading a strike team. The crew worked the Pocket fire and the Tubbs fire and he said the experience of helping on the fire events would stay with him.

“This is a historical fire. One you’ll talk about with your grandkids,” Wooten said.

The emotional outpouring from residents has hit Wooten and his team in several ways, perhaps none so moving as when they stopped for coffee Monday. They found themselves surrounded by grateful people.

“This lady walked up and hugged us, said ‘Thank you,’ ” Wooten said. “She lost her son in the fire and she has that kind of tragedy and she’s telling us thank you?

“It says a lot for the humanity of the people here,” Wooten said.

After a 24-hour shift on the fire lines and bit of shut-eye, a strike team of 22 Washington firefighters Tuesday took its break. They volunteered at Forget Me Not Farm, a therapeutic refuge for abused and neglected children off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

The firefighters fed evacuated animals, cleaned stalls, moved hay and spread wood chips. “It was amazing,” said the farm’s founder and director, Carol Rathmann. “They kept saying they want to give, which is a pretty amazing place to be coming from.”

It was an 800‑mile drive for Gig Harbor Battalion Chief Todd Meyer and another Washington strike team. They are part of up to 50 engines sent from the Evergreen state. They came late last week, in time to jump on the new Oakmont fire and protect buildings on Pythian Road, including the county’s old juvenile hall, where they stopped flames that got within 100 feet. Tuesday they were ending a 24-hour stint at the Pocket fire, in the rugged hills above Geyserville.

“It was the biggest burnout I had ever supported or been on,” Meyer said of the 3‑mile control burn firefighters lit to knock out fuel in the fire’s eastward path.

“You feel good about being here,” Meyer said. “But you wish you weren’t here and wish it never happened.”

In Kenwood Monday, residents allowed to return to their neighborhood found a reception of CHP officers holding a large “Welcome Home” sign, said Aspen Mayers, co-owner of Kenwood’s Swede’s Feeds pet and garden gift shop. “That was so amazing.”

Not everyone involved in the effort has felt the appreciation, including law enforcement officers Tuesday facing rising tensions from frustrated and tired residents who want to go home after more than a week of being displaced.

Some angry residents have “screamed, spit and cursed at” law enforcement working road closures, said CHP spokesman Jon Sloat. One person even called a National Guard member “the enemy,” Sloat said.

Law enforcement officials have also sought help far and wide since the initial firestorm Oct. 8.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder in those first hours put out a sweeping call for backup to help evacuate people, and later to protect residential neighborhoods from possible looters. Officers have come from throughout the Bay Area and Northern California, including Santa Clara, Humboldt, San Mateo and Alameda counties.

A tally of the responding agencies showed roughly 75 different jurisdictions and a peak of about 220 nonlocal officers.

“When one community is in trouble, they’re there to help,” said Schreeder. “I’ve just been absolutely floored by the response we’ve gotten in this community from our mutual aid partners.”

“I have a lot of thank-you cards to write.”

Staff columnist Chris Smith contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412.