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 Many struggle with run-down and outdated stations, aging engines and water trucks and a lack of new volunteers.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.
That combination made a difference the night the Oct. 8 firestorm swept through the region, with Mayacamas and other volunteer fire companies, including Knights Valley and Mountain, springing into action.
In Mendocino County, where the Redwood Valley fire raged, Potter Valley volunteers for days protected a PG&E power plant and a crucial piece of infrastructure for the region’s water supply — a wooden, 109-year-old water spillway gate.
For Mountain volunteers, the wind-driven flames of the Tubbs fire roared through their region along Petrified Forest, destroying homes on Mountain Home Ranch Road and Franz Valley Road in the heart of their district, which they protect with Cal Fire oversight.
“We couldn’t drive as fast as the fire was moving,” said Chief Loren Davis who worked with six volunteers and two engines through the first night and into Monday. “By the time we got up there fire already had ripped through a good chunk of our area. Homes were just ablaze. I’ve never seen fire behavior like this.”
The firefighting crew connected with others who’d rushed to the area to help, forming a de-facto task force.
“Let’s try this. Let’s try that,” Davis said, recounting the quick huddle to devise a strategy as gusts tossed whole branches and glowing embers, homes exploded and power lines came down with toppled trees.
Knocked on doors
Volunteers in the path of the Tubbs fire tried to set up on Franz Valley School Road but with flames everywhere, the best approach was to save lives and rescue people where possible.
“We found several people asleep who didn’t know anything was going on,” said Davis, 66. A family of four who answered their urgent front-door knocks left their home in underwear and nightclothes.
The volunteers’ local knowledge helped, Davis said.
“My people know the back roads. ‘We have to turn up here, so and so lives up this road’ … We knew where the doors were to knock on to get the people out.”
About 2 a.m. when the inferno blocked the volunteers’ path above and below them on Mark West Springs Road they stopped at the Mark West Springs Lodge where about 30 people huddled in their cars in the parking lot, under the close watch of a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.
“The best thing to do was sit there and protect them,” Davis said. Fire burned in the ridges above the parking lot, almost encircling the group.
For about five hours the group remained until deputies arrived and alerted them it was safe to leave. The volunteers headed back up the hill to help with burning homes and property. They remained active in the effort throughout the following week, earning about $20 an hour from the state for helping on a large fire.
Keeping routes open
Knights Valley volunteer Bud Pochini and volunteer Chief Augie Grube — half the four-man Knights Valley company, and the only ones available during the initial wave of flames — saved several homes in a corner of their remote valley. But that came later Monday.
Late Sunday and until dawn, as fire raged one valley over, the men were busy with evacuations and keeping the valley’s few main routes open for fire engines and fleeing residents. Winds gusted at 60 mph and stronger — Pochini swore they were up to 100 mph — snapping the tops of redwood trees and snarling roadways.
Pochini recruited his 17-year-old daughter as well as a winery mechanic and a couple of residents. Using the chainsaws he keeps in his pickup, the crew worked for hours to clear and maintain a passable route along Highway 128 and Franz Valley School Road.
Grube, 71, whose own home burned that night, led caravans of cars full with people to safety across the valley through a large, gated vineyard. His family had to escape on their own. They loaded up horses and dogs and got out “by the skin of their teeth,” Grube said.
Later in the morning, fire moved into Pochini’s neighborhood and the two men with a few locals fought flames for hours, moving from house to house.
“I saved his house, saved his neighbor’s house, the neighbors above him and the neighbor above him,” Pochini recounted, his voice still rough from smoke inhalation.
While the group was occupied with those homes, though, fire skunked along the hillside and got to Pochini’s house and his sister’s home next door. A propane tank exploded and the homes were lost.
“If I’d known and had some hands, I could have tried to save at least my sister’s home,” he said.
For many of the veterans, the firestorm evoked deep memories of the 1964 Hanly fire, which also began in Calistoga and roared into Santa Rosa before being stopped near what was then the edge of town.
Grube, 18 at the time, helped save his family’s Franz Valley Road home. Chief of the volunteer company since 1978, he lamented that more volunteers haven’t joined in over the years. They would have been a big help two weeks ago.
“We had three engines sitting in the firehouse because we don’t have any volunteers,” he said.
The loss of homes and lives weighed heavily on him. “That’s why we all started and what we’re all about, is helping our neighbors and our friends,” Grube said.
Firefighters from volunteer companies countywide responded to the front, including Fort Ross, Camp Meeker and Valley Ford, each one familiar with the struggle to continue operating as their ranks dwindle.
One company had its own difficult fight far removed from the fires affecting most of Sonoma County. Starting at 2 a.m. on Monday Oct. 9, Lakeville volunteers began a multi-day battle against a large grass fire near Highway 37 and Sonoma Raceway. It eventually burned 1,500 acres.
Chief Nick Silva had eight volunteers and three engines at the Lakeville fire, a fourth in Glen Ellen on the Nuns fire and one in the station, just in case. He praised the volunteers’ dedication. Several missed days of work to stay on the fire lines.
“It was a tremendous effort,” Silva said.
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org.