Firefighters heading out from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to continue mopping up wildfires early Saturday were treated to their very own cheering section.
Dozens of residents waved signs and showered departing fire crews and those returning from front lines with loud applause and cries of “Thank you!” and “We love you!”
“I’m just really grateful for the firefighters, first responders, Caltrans and PG&E workers and others who have risked their lives to help our community,” said Kellie Cronin, a Santa Rosa resident who helped organize the gathering. “We just wanted to show our appreciation.”
As crews gain greater control over the most devastating fires in state history — the deadly Tubbs fire was at 94 percent containment Saturday — the small army of firefighters based at the fairgrounds is about to shrink dramatically.
Aware of that shift, Cronin and others didn’t want firefighters returning home without knowing how much local residents appreciate their bravery and sacrifice, she said.
“Thank you for saving my city!” yelled 36-year-old Cherokee Montgomery, who whooped and screamed as the line of fire trucks, water tenders and pickup trucks passed the intersection of Brookwood Avenue and Bennett Valley Road during what has become an impressive daily procession.
Smiling firefighters waved, shot videos and blared the thunderous horns on their rigs as they passed the packed intersection.
At its peak Thursday, 5,422 firefighting personnel were assigned to the firefight in Sonoma County. Since then, after about a quarter-inch of rain fell overnight Thursday, about 1,000 firefighters have been released from the incident, according to Cal Fire. There are also about 2,500 national guard units deployed to the area, he said.
The “demobilization” process is going to intensify in the coming days as firefighters from 78 different agencies wrap up their work and resources are needed down south, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.
High temperatures, low humidity levels and Santa Ana winds are forecast in the coming days for San Diego County, another round of “critical fire weather conditions” for the southland.
Cal Fire takes a number of factors into consideration to determine which crews to release and which to keep on the remaining hot spots.
Length of deployment, type of equipment in use and need in other areas are the most pressing factors, McLean said.
Wildland fire engines are now more in need than those designed for fighting flames on city streets.
Before crews hit the road, they also need to get checked out to make sure their equipment is ready for the next assignment, McLean said.
He said the drawdown is set to accelerate “by thousands” in the coming days.
Cronin, 46, wearing a “Sonoma County Strong” sweatshirt, said she felt compelled to show her support after her 3-year-old grandson spotted a banner over Highway 101 thanking first responders. Her heart sank when she saw that it had been damaged or vandalized.
She has had a soft spot for first responders ever since her house was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Laura Rondet, 47, was embarrassed that her “Thank you” sign was made with just a piece of cardboard and a black marker. But after her Bennett Valley home looked to be in the path of the flames, Rondet said she wanted to do something to show her appreciation.
She said she worries that people will soon fall back into their regular routines and forget the “pain people who’ve lost their homes are going through.”
She hoped firefighters will inspire people to “care more about each other, get to know your neighbors, and get more involved in your community.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.