Five volunteer Mayacamas firefighters in two aging engines were being blasted by burning bark chips along Trinity Road, where homes were aflame, when a Cal Fire official drove up and told their chief to retreat.
But the veteran in the group, 76-year-old Will Horne, the tall and blunt leader of the Mayacamas volunteers, was determined to defend “the Hill,” as it is known by locals. So on that dark night of a violent firestorm two weeks ago he ignored the directive and the crew of five stayed.
For a time, flames separated his group from career firefighters working in the area. For hours, radio chatter was the only way Sonoma Valley and Cal Fire firefighters knew the volunteers were alive.
“My guys were just going from place to place, sizing things up and what they could save,” said Horne, a retired fire services chief for Exxon.
Plastic water tanks at some properties had melted. Others had menacing stands of dead conifers. Horne’s 27-year-old engine took too long to refill with water.
“Unfortunately, we have to pick and choose,” Horne said.
Saved 2 dozen homes
Almost 50 homes burned in the rough terrain high above Sonoma Valley where the Mayacamas Volunteer Company made their stand against the Nuns fire — on familiar ground they are called to protect year-round.
The fire, the largest to burn across Sonoma County this month, jumped Highway 12 and raced up the hill from Glen Ellen into the Trinity and Cavedale road neighborhoods. Four of the destroyed homes belonged to members of the eight-member Mayacamas volunteer firefighting force, including Horne, whose house was lost two days after the fire began.
But between the fire’s first blast uphill and for the next few days, as many as 12 volunteers — including former members returning to help — saved some two dozen homes in their company’s jurisdiction, Horne said.
He was still shaking his head days after the heaviest flames died down, recounting a caller who in the middle of efforts to save houses wanted help from firefighters with small spot fires in a vineyard.
“Are you kidding me?” the chief said, recalling his response.
The gritty Mayacamas firefighters, with two members in their 70s and two in their 60s, reflect the current state of the county’s 11 remaining volunteer fire companies. Many struggle with run-down and outdated stations, aging engines and water trucks and a lack of new volunteers. Most responding to calls are above retirement age.
Desire to protect
And yet during a countywide emergency threatening thousands of homes and tens of thousands of residents, the volunteers proved indispensable in protecting structures and saving lives.
“They put themselves into some pretty bad spots,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom. “They were right in the middle of it. They did a great job.”
The county’s rural volunteers have always maintained they bring something to a firefight in their backyard that outside agencies can’t: intimate knowledge of the winding roads, steep slopes, the location of houses tucked far down rural lanes and spots where flames are most likely to burn.
When called to respond, they also bring a desire to protect their own community.