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Family called to firefighting battled California’s worst blaze together

Firefighting is in the blood of the Bello family of Bloomfield. They take comfort knowing they were together that night last October, saving lives and structures, doing the work they’ve trained for.|

Gold Ridge volunteer firefighters Tonia and Vail Bello and their son and daughter were in Hollister last year for an early October weekend and asleep when the flurry of texts and pages began.

Are you coming? firefighters and friends asked. When can you be here?

They woke their kids, gathered the dog, climbed into the family SUV and sped north on Highway 101. Soon after midnight they were behind a fleet of Bay Area emergency vehicles racing north, shortening the typically three-hour drive. At the Richmond Bridge, they smelled smoke. An ominous glow loomed in the northern sky.

By 3 a.m., they'd dropped off 14-year-old daughter Rylee and the family dog at their Sebastopol-area home, gone to the firehouse with their son Logan, then an Analy High School senior, and met up with veteran volunteer Capt. Tony Voight and new volunteer firefighter Jake Adams.

They donned their yellow fire turnouts, clambered into a Gold Ridge water tender and headed for Santa Rosa.

The five were among hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement officers and others who responded during the initial hours of the firestorm late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9, dashing toward multiple fires spanning ridgelines and valleys from Santa Rosa to Napa County and beyond, in what would become the most destructive siege of wildfire in California history.

They were determined warriors in the midst of the maelstrom. Around them, homes exploded, businesses crumbled and vehicles melted away. The crew, which included two novices, were witnesses to unfathomable and overwhelming damage.

Logan worked 20 hours. The others kept going for nearly two days.

“At the moment you couldn't get emotional,” said Tonia Bello. “The aftermath was very emotional.”

Dreadful memories

A year later, relaxing in their Bloomfield ranch-style home, the Bello family has attained an unsettled peace in the wake of their brave stand against the Tubbs fire.

They moved that night from one crux of flames to another: The Orchard mobile home park, where 70 homes burned; later, Fountaingrove, where more than 1,500 homes were lost; and the Luther Burbank Center, which sustained major damage.

Dreadful memories remain vivid for each family member.

“It was like a combination of excitement, sorrow and terror,” Logan said. “On the outside, I was keeping my cool.” Inside, he recalled thinking, “Oh my God. This is so, so bad.”

This summer, he was assigned to the state's largest-ever wildland blaze, the 410,000-acre Ranch fire in Mendocino County. He's working toward a career in firefighting and continues to volunteer while studying at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Vail Bello, a retired law enforcement officer, remembers the endless, rapid sequence of propane-tank explosions - the white flash followed by the loud bang - and his fear that each meant someone in a home had died. But there also is the pride he felt for his wife and son, plus Voight and Adams, and their ability to push through exhaustion in the face of the inferno.

Tonia finds herself wishing they could have done more during their two-day trial. Mostly she thinks about Orchard, the mobile home park where many seniors lived.

She's returned to the Piner Road neighborhood half a dozen times seeking to understand where they worked that night and what they'd accomplished. On one trip, she and her husband took a rose bush to the first rebuilt home. Her daughter accompanied her on another visit to learn where her family had been that night.

She's a tough mom of 52 with firefighting in her blood, but on one trip back, her wish to talk to residents brought her to the breaking point.

“My heart is with everyone, but that hit me the hardest,” she said, tears welling up. “Those people, they're older. I don't know what their ability is to go back and rebuild.”

Her husband of 31 years has tried to convince her they made a difference along with so many others.

“We did some pretty great things with not a lot of resources,” said Vail, a ranch manager. “I keep telling her this. She should be proud. She kept going, everybody that went out that night did. All these heroes - to even go out there in the first place.”

Called to help

Their orders that night, as they left the Gold Ridge Fire District's Watertrough Road station, were to get to Mendocino and Bicentennial avenues in Santa Rosa and alert dispatch they were available for an assignment.

Driving east on Piner Road, they faced a slow, oncoming exodus of fleeing residents. On the 15-minute trip, radio channels were overloaded with nonstop pleas from firefighters all over the county seeking more engines, water and hands.

It was clear that the blaze had outpaced any human command. Like scores of fire crews throughout the county that night, the Gold Ridge volunteers needed to freelance.

So when they heard a radio call from a U.S. Coast Guard Two Rock fire engine just blocks away, begging for help at a mobile home park, they went.

Behind the wheel, Vail Bello turned into the neighborhood. Left turn, then right toward the fire.

Tonia Bello was facing backward in the truck, so she initially didn't see what was unfolding through the front windshield: whole blocks of The Orchard consumed in fire. Jumping from the truck, the firefighters were thrown into deafening chaos - explosions, swirling embers borne aloft on stiff gusts, alarms sounding, vehicle horns blasting and more sirens blaring from multiple directions. Residents were still leaving their homes, some screaming for help.

Voight, a veteran San Francisco firefighter and 30-year volunteer raised in a firefighting family, knew he had a makeshift crew on the blaze of a lifetime.

“I'm not going to put anybody in harm's way,” he remembers thinking.

They had their training, exit strategies and back-up safety plans. He had special instructions for Logan Bello: “I know your mom and dad are here, but right now you work for me.”

Outside the engine, “he calmly looked each of us in the eye,” Tonia Bello remembered, and told them, “?‘This is what we're doing.'?”

They sprayed water on homes not yet burning, skipping ones already in flames. They pounded on doors, blasted the engine horn and siren to roust people still at home.

The pair with the most experience, Voight and Tonia Bello, a volunteer firefighter for about 15 years who currently works as a part-time paid firefighter, took a hose line.

It put them closest to the flames. She felt like her eyeballs would melt. For awhile, she and Voight rotated positions, one on the hose with the other standing nearby holding their turnout jacket open to shield the other from the heat. When one hose burned through, they swapped it out.

“I never did feel really scared. He was so good, making sure we felt OK,” she said of Voight.

Vail Bello managed the water pressure, which fluctuated greatly due to the overtaxed system. His attention swiveled from water to his son and Adams, whom he kept close, and his wife and Voight nearer to the fire, at times calling for a retreat when heat endangered the engine and flames got too close.

The younger firefighters looked for new hydrants when water got low, worked on a second hose when pressure was available and helped check homes, at times finding people still inside. At one home, Logan's pounding turned up residents watching television.

“There's fire two houses down! You need to get the hell out!” Logan yelled at them.

Their last save in the neighborhood, working with a Cal Fire engine, was on Apple Blossom Way, Tonia said. But as they finished, the view from the roof in the pink, smoky daylight became one of her indelible memories. Utter devastation.

Outpouring of thanks

Late Monday morning, they needed coffee, food and eye drops.

They found a Raley's open at Fulton and Guerneville roads, west of Highway 101. The reaction to their arrival was unexpected, awkward and humbling.

The store manager insisted on giving them free water and food, wouldn't take their money and urged them to send other emergency responders.

It was the same welcome early Tuesday morning at the Starbucks on Airport Boulevard. Still in their turnouts, now blackened from smoke and sweat, patrons pushed them to the front of the line and paid for their drinks.

Vail Bello worked years as a Petaluma police officer and sergeant and retired as a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy. He's been a volunteer firefighter for about a dozen years. But he wasn't prepared for the gratitude showered on his group and so many other firefighters and first responders.

“People were hugging us, coming up in tears,” he said. “It caught me off guard emotionally.”

Pushing through the days

By early Monday afternoon, with fires still raging on multiple fronts, the Gold Ridge crew started a 24-hour shift in Fountaingrove neighborhoods. Most of the streets were a complete loss.

The water system serving the hillside area had failed, and Vail drove the water tender dozens of times down Fountaingrove Parkway to Sutter Hospital to fill up and return.

For hours they moved house to house, pulling 200 feet of hose, saturating smoldering yards and working house fires. A few times, they hoisted Tonia over locked gates so she could pull the hose onto the property and douse the threat.

“We were soaked through with water and sweat,” Vail said.

They helped on a particularly nice save of a Rincon Ridge home with a burning garage. Tonia Bello, working inside, recalled there was no time to grab a ladder and she climbed atop a stunning redwood dining table in her fire boots to reach up and break open the ceiling.

Late Monday night, the crew dropped Logan with a friend to get home and reconnect with his sister. The next day, the siblings began volunteering at the evacuation shelter set up at Analy High School.

But for the four remaining, it was back up to Fountaingrove, where they caught a midnight break and fell fast asleep. Twenty minutes later, they were back at it, working several more hours in the neighborhood and at the Luther Burbank Center, where the fire had rekindled.

About 6 p.m. Tuesday, they were back at their station.

‘Fighting a fight together'

“I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, and at the same time I didn't want to be there,” Vail Bello said, thinking back on his role confronting the firestorm.

A few months afterward, there was some recognition for Logan Bello: A customer at the car dealership where he works came in and Bello realized the man lived in the Santa Rosa mobile home park.

The man looked familiar to him, and Bello looked familiar to the man. He asked if he was the young firefighter who'd pounded on his door that night and all but ordered him to leave.

The man thanked him and they shook hands.

“It was pretty cool,” Bello said.

Tonia Bello takes what comfort she can knowing her family was together that night, doing the work they've trained for.

“While we were there, in the midst of all of that, I felt like we were together, we were fighting a fight together and doing it with all that we are and all that we could do,” she said.

Since last October, they've been sharing their memories, talking through the experience. Had they been split up among other crews, or if just one of them had gone, the aftermath would have been tougher to handle, she said.

“We know what we were up against, what we were doing, what that whole fight was all about,” she said. “I wouldn't have changed that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.

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