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.”