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Free skydives offered to firefighters, first responders in gratitude for work during Sonoma County wildfires

One after the other, Sonoma Valley Fire Capt. Jim Kracke and firefighter Max Psaledakis hurled themselves out of a plane Sunday afternoon, 10,000 feet over Novato beneath clear blue spring skies.

Psaledakis, 18, nailed the landing. A perfect step one, step two, onto the landing area at Gnoss Field.

His dad, fellow Sonoma Valley firefighter George Psaledakis, yipped and hollered as he watched his son return to Earth, filming the landing on his smartphone before heading over to give the teen a hug.

Kracke looked on from down the field, rubbing his ankle. His landing came about a minute before, and wasn’t quite so picturesque.

A good sport about it nonetheless, within minutes he was back to cracking jokes, all three firefighters discussing whether Max Psaledakis, a senior at Sonoma Valley High School, should perhaps consider a career as a smokejumper, the highly trained wildland firefighters who parachute into remote areas.

The trio were at Gnoss Field Saturday as part of a thank you to first responders, put on by Skydive Golden Gate owners Michael and Kate Knight - grateful that firefighters saved their Sonoma home when the October wildfires threatened their neighborhood.

Tandem skydives with the year-old company are usually $199, plus an extra $120 for a video and picture package, but the Knights wanted to give them away to first responders for free.

“It’s all we have to give,” Kate Knight said.

In all, 23 first responders and family members signed up for the skydive sessions, put on all day by Skydive Golden Gate.

“I said to Max, ‘well, I’m 59, so I’ve kind of seen and done everything,’” George Psaledakis said. “I feel fulfilled in life, and I said there’s one more way to fulfill my life.”

The two Psaledakis men and Kracke were together on the initial call the night of Oct. 8, responding together to a fire reported on Nuns Canyon Road. The night spiraled from there.

“We get maybe one or two structure fires a year, and that night we had a choice,” George Psaledakis said. “We had to pick and choose which ones we thought we could save. It was crazy.”

“Four days straight, no sleep,” Kracke said.

Sunday was their first time skydiving, and other than Kracke’s slight misstep, all went according to plan.

As part of the day, Gnoss Field Community Association pilots offered up their planes to the first responders, too, giving aerial tours of the burn scars in Sonoma and Napa counties.

The Psaledakis men climbed onboard a Cirrus SR22 piloted by Novato resident Rick Beach. Why did Beach volunteer? “It’s payback,” he said.

Flying north along Highway 101, he punched in the GPS coordinates for Glen Ellen, where the Psaledakis men live. It would mark the end of a loop that took the firefighters over some of the most devastated parts of the North Bay, including Coffey Park, Mark West and Fountaingrove - their scraped lots and charred landscape clearly visible from the air.

“A lot of emotions,” George Psaledakis said, hovering over Fountaingrove. “It’s pretty sad. I had survivor’s guilt for a few weeks.”

As the plane neared their Glen Ellen home, Max Psaledakis pointed out one of the houses they saved that first night.

“Yeah, that’s our neighborhood,” George Psaledakis said. “We almost lost it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.

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