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Sonoma County deputy’s level head kept Mark West residents calm during Santa Rosa fire

Mark Aldridge, a deputy with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, in the parking lot at Mark West Lodge Event Center in Santa Rosa, on Tuesday, November 14, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

DIANE PETERSON THE PRESS DEMOCRAT, BY DIANE PETERSON THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Aldridge is a humble man who does not consider himself a hero. But in the early hours of Oct. 9, that role was thrust upon him as dozens of residents evacuating from the rural, northeast corner of Sonoma County found themselves trapped at Mark West Lodge while the devastating Tubbs firestorm roared all around them.

His boss, Sgt. Brandon Cutting, narrowly escaped ahead of the deputy. Cutting’s body camera captured footage of the embers and flames roaring across Mark West Springs Road as he drove east along with an urgent radio message to Aldridge: “Do not pass.”

During the night, Aldridge set up camp in the lodge parking lot, where he flagged down dozens of evacuees fleeing the fire, then gathered the cars together in the center of the concrete lot to create a firebreak.

“I was hoping that if it did burn,” he said. “it would go fast and burn right over us.”

He spent the next five hours managing the anxieties of 35 people hunkered down in that smoky parking lot, from a 4-month-old baby to a 91-year-old. The goal was to keep them calm and prevent a panicked flight into danger. He did it by cracking jokes and giving them tasks like handing out water or keeping an eye on the shifting, wind-driven flames.

Throughout the night, the adults gathered around his car to listen to the news of the fire crackling through his radio. At the time, Aldridge’s biggest fear was for the deputies in Larkfield, who were knocking on doors of houses already in flames.

“I heard on the radio that Paradise Ridge burned, and Round Barn, and then it jumped the highway and K-Mart was on fire and Coffey Park,” he said. “I listened to the progress of this fire, and I felt helpless.”

Sometime during the night, Aldridge flagged down the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, also trapped on the hill, and talked them into leaving an engine in the parking lot. Other than that, he had nothing on hand but his own street smarts for survival.

Aldridge has no sense of time from that night, but he knows it was a waiting game. He passed out granola bars to the kids, who were tucked away in the cars, safely out of earshot. And he prepared the adults for the worst.

If the flames came closer, he told them, get into your cars and put clothing up against the windows. And stay there until I or a firefighter say it’s safe to get out.

Would some of them have fled without his calm presence? He balks at the question.

“I had a lot of help with the people that were up there,” he said. “It was a village.”

Among the 35 people trapped there was single mom Jennifer Whitt Aldridge and her 12-year-old son, Tommy, who had just returned from a weekend trip to Crescent City. They were in a dead sleep when a friend living on their hilltop property awakened them.

After hosing down the roof and deck of her house, Arrington looked east and saw the fire jump a ridge. She grabbed her two dogs and her son and drove the quarter mile down to the lodge, where she was flagged down by Aldridge. The deputy impressed her with his cool head and his ability to “keep it real.”

“Mark was really calm, but you could tell he wasn’t,” she said. “I’m a survivor, and I could tell that he knew we were not in a good spot. We were in grave danger ... but he gave us things to do, which kept us calm, so we could go to our cars with our children and remain calm, and the kids could stay calm. “

While no one bolted, Arrington said everyone’s worst fears were racing as they heard the exploding trees march closer and closer. Occasionally, the winds would shift and the group would try not to panic, she said. They joked about going back to their houses to grab some booze.

“It was a party at the end of the world,” she said. “It had the feeling of a war, without people shooting at us.”

At one point, the flames came within 150 yards of the lodge. and Aldridge asked everyone to get into their cars. But the flames stayed at bay.

Then, just before sunrise, there was a welcome sound: Cutting’s voice came over the radio, announcing that “I’m going to go up to the lodge.” Aldridge rounded everyone up and gave instructions for their exit plan.

With Cutting leading the way, the caravan of 19 cars followed in single file, and Aldridge pulled up the rear. They zig-zagged under power lines and burning trees, through a surreal, pitch-dark landscape lit only by flames.

“We dodged telephone poles, trees, houses, wrecked cars,” Arrington said. “The rocks were falling off the cliff, and they were on fire, smoldering and burning into the road.”

The caravan convened at the River Road PG&E substation, then everyone dispersed to shelters or family and friends’ homes. Although the fire eventually burned right down to Mark West Lodge, the circa 1840s building survived, along with the gnarly grape arbor over the road.

Only later did Aldridge remember that he had proposed to his wife at the lodge, and that his father, a volunteer fireman, successfully defended the structure during the Hanley fire of ’64.

This Thanksgiving, Aldridge and his wife and two kids will be counting their blessings among friends at a family cabin in Anchor Bay. “I’m grateful that everybody got out,” he said. “And the lodge didn’t burn — again.”

A few weeks after the fire, the down-to-earth deputy flew back to Miami for the iHeartRadio Fiesta Latina: Celebrating our Heroes concert. Between acts, he shared the stage with first responders from all over the world: a dispatcher from Miami-Dade who delivered a baby over the phone, firefighters from Puerto Rico and the widow of Officer Steve Perez, who died during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey. Aldridge represented the many first responders of the Sonoma and Napa firestorms.

“I’ve seen a lot in 13 years, but this will stick with me forever.” he said. “There was not one person working that night who wasn’t a hero.”