For 15 years, the American Red Cross California Northwest chapter has honored “real heroes” on the North Coast for their humanitarian and environmental service.
Six months after wildfires destroyed more than 6,000 homes and killed 40 people in the region, the 2018 awards, presented Friday morning in Santa Rosa recognized the actions of local residents in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe.
A sheriff’s deputy, a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist, two high school students, a pair of heavy-equipment operators and the owner of a wild animal preserve were all honored at the Real Heroes Breakfast for their acts of courage and compassion during the October fires.
“The fires didn’t discriminate, they had an equal impact on everybody,” said Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the American Red Cross California Northwest chapter. “Everybody responded in kind.”
A total of 19 people from six counties were recognized in 11 award categories. Nearly half of the honorees were recognized for their deeds during the wildfires.
With the Nuns fire threatening homes in the hills of Napa County the night of Oct. 8, Eli Ponce, a vineyard development contractor, and Dan Wynn, an employee, jumped in company bulldozers and started cutting their own fire breaks to help save nearly 3,000 homes in the Hidden Home neighborhood of Napa.
“I saw an old lady with a machete trying to cut down branches,” to protect homes from the flames, Ponce said in a short video presentation for the Disaster Service Hero award presented to him and Wynn.
The two worked all night with no protective gear and no permission from fire officials. After a short rest in the morning, the men resumed their work and continued to carve fire breaks for the next six days.
“Everybody was busy on the other side of the valley fighting the Atlas fire,” Ponce said. “There just wasn’t enough help so we had do it ourselves.”
In the initial hours of the firestorm, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Aldridge was on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains trying to evacuate people living up Mark West Springs Road. The Tubbs fire was racing in their direction on its way into northern Santa Rosa, where it decimated whole neighborhoods, burning thousands of homes.
Aldridge, who was presented the First Responder Hero award, and 35 others were stranded when flames, debris and downed power lines made Mark West Springs Road impassible. The deputy directed people to the Mark West Lodge parking lot to wait out the worst of the inferno.
He was on watch all night as flame fronts raged around the group of evacuees, including an infant and elderly residents.
Asked to describe the terrifying night, Aldridge responded with a fitting expletive, and then added about his actions and those of others, “I’m a small part of it. Every deputy and cop did just what they were supposed to do that night.”
A mile and a half up the Mark West Springs Road that night, Safari West owner Peter Lang was fighting to save more than a 1,000 wild animals on his 400-acre preserve and guest camp. He turned the animals loose and then used garden hoses and a forklift to fight back the flames. None of the animals died in the blaze and he was honored for his actions with the Animal Hero award.