As a Marine platoon sergeant during the Iraq war in 2008, Clint St. Martin felt like he always had a “fighting chance,” leading 40 armed and trained men who could call on air support if needed under an enemy assault.
Not so nearly a decade later, when the Sonoma County volunteer firefighter found his engine trapped by the roaring flames of the Tubbs fire on Mark West Springs Road the night of Oct. 8, 2017.
“You felt utterly helpless,” said St. Martin, 35, a Santa Rosa building contractor recalling the two epic experiences of his life. He wound up spending that fearsome night in the Mark West Lodge parking lot with about three dozen other survivors of the blaze that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 4,600 homes, including his own.
Lean and fit, with close-cropped dark hair, a deep voice and an easy manner, St. Martin has the looks and the name for a Hollywood marquee. He's also packed more living into three decades than many people do in a lifetime.
St. Martin is a single father, licensed to build homes, fly airplanes, drive fire trucks and provide emergency medical care. With degrees in sociology from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, he has climbed Mount Whitney, gone sky diving in Cloverdale and - in one of the few things St. Martin said he would rather not repeat - done a west coast swing dance on stage before a live audience.
“That's a one and done,” he said, relaxing on a terrace of a home in the Mark West Springs area.
But it was for a good cause, the “Dancing with the Stars and Stripes” fundraiser for the Veterans Resource Centers of America, a live show in April that featured 11 couples in competition mimicking the well-known television show.
St. Martin and his partner, Brenda Shatto, a dance instructor and elementary school teacher, didn't win, but they helped raise money for the nonprofit that assists veterans, and good causes are a big part of his life since graduating from high school in 2002 and immediately joining the Marines.
Hailed for his work with Devil Pups, a youth program fostered by the Marine Corps, St. Martin is this month's recipient of the North Bay Spirit Award, a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast to honor everyday heroes for hands-on community service that goes above and beyond normal volunteering.
Nathan Jacobsen of Santa Rosa said St. Martin and the Devil Pups program were a “game-changer” for his son, Roby Hart, three years ago.
“Clint took him under his wing, as he does with all the kids,” getting Roby physically and mentally ready for the 10-day Devil Pups training encampment at Camp Pendleton, a 125,000-acre Marine base in San Diego County, Jacobsen said.
But the program, with active-duty Marine instructors, is more than an introduction to military service, he said. “It is about preparing these young kids to be productive and contributing members of their community.”
Hart, 18, who now lives in Folsom and works for a well-drilling company, said the rigorous program included miles of marching every day, jumping off a 25-foot tower into a pool and twice completing the Marine combat fitness test that includes a 75-yard sprint while carrying two 30-pound ammunition cans.
The instructors yelled at the teens from the start, and Hart said he learned “if they yell at you for something you have to yell back at them and be 100 percent sure of what you say.”
“It was challenging, but I loved it,” he said, admitting he went in as a “super shy” kid who stayed to himself.
Hart plans on joining the Marines, he said.
Mike Ferguson of Sebastopol, a Vietnam war veteran, said St. Martin captivated a crowd at the Sebastopol Rotary Club's Veterans Day program in November. “He's a self-made guy,” Ferguson said. “A renaissance fellow. We just wish there were a lot more of them in the community.”
St. Martin told the Rotarians about the time he went to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China with animal rights activist Odessa Gunn of Forestville in 2017 and stole a small shepherd-mix dog from a cage and made off with it. The dog, one of 10 Gunn brought home, now lives with a Petaluma family.