Kincade fire spotlighted Marshall Turbeville, Geyserville and Cal Fire chief, at his best
Of all the firefighters who worked to save Margie Hanselman's Coyote Ridge Road home when the Kincade fire made its initial run Oct. 23, she reserves extra gratitude for a man who wasn't even there.
That night, Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville was several ridges away in the Mayacamas Mountains, near the fire's origin in The Geysers geothermal field of northeastern Sonoma County. He was directing the firefight and calling Cal Fire dispatchers to muster a larger force to battle the blaze as it headed toward Geyserville.
Driven by dry winds from the east, the Kincade fire would burn down into Alexander Valley before dawn. During two windstorms over the next week, the fire made fierce runs into the outskirts of Windsor and Healdsburg, destroying 174 homes on its way to becoming the largest wildfire in county history.
But that first night, Turbeville had a hand in many of the wins on Coyote Ridge that kept the fire from doing even more damage.
“The firemen knew they could make a real stand here in the Kincade fire to prevent it going further northwest,” Hanselman said. “The road created a real fire break. It worked. And this was Marshall's vision.”
The firestorm of 2017 laid bare how wind-driven wildfires can render communities powerless to stop destruction. But the Kincade fire proved that the work individuals and institutions put in to prepare for the next fire can make a difference.
On Coyote Ridge, Turbeville's influence was essential. He was behind the defensible space that Hanselman and her husband and many neighbors created by trimming grasses, limbing trees and cutting down brush too close to homes.
He inspired the neighborhood phone tree that got early warnings about the fire to residents.
His advice resulted in each unlocked gate, opened for firefighters and deputies to enter, and the turnarounds cut into driveways so they could get fire engines out.
And his initiative showed along the 3-mile fire break created along Coyote Ridge Road, which branches off Highway 128 and traverses through the hills toward some of the steepest ridges of the Mayacamas range. Turbeville secured grant funding to ensure the dirt road's shoulder, once crowded with thick brush and tree limbs, was cleared by fire season.
All this work, spearheaded by Turbeville long before the fire broke out, meant firefighters on Coyote Ridge had a chance to save homes.
The Kincade fire burned most of Hanselman's 80-acre property - but her house still stands.
“He's the most committed person you'll ever meet when it comes to his job and believing what you can accomplish,” Hanselman said. “His whole focus is being prepared.”
Anchored in community
Sonoma County has a deep bench of veteran firefighters with intimate knowledge of their districts. Their vital roles in communities have been underscored by the fires of recent years.
In those ranks is Turbeville, a 44-year-old fixture in northern Sonoma County with an uncanny ability to show up where and when he's most needed. He stands out with a textbook recall of historic wildfires and a photographic memory of Sonoma County's landscape, its rural roads and ridges indelible in his mind.
He has memorized back roads, gate codes and family trees in the areas he serves.
“He has a lot of passion. He's anchored and lives in the community,” Cloverdale Fire Protection District Chief Jason Jenkins said. “He's one of those firefighters where he lives it. Marshall taking a day off is rare and far between.”
Supervisor James Gore, whose district was hardest hit by the Kincade fire, called Turbeville “the epitome of a protector.”
Each morning while the Kincade fire burned, Gore checked in with the chief to find out what people needed to know. During the second and fiercest windstorm that began about midnight Oct. 26 - gusts would eventually hit 90 mph - Gore shadowed Turbeville as he drove “hot laps” around the fire, radioing instructions and poring over maps to give firefighters their best shot at defense.
“Local knowledge might not have stopped a fire, but it saved innumerable houses,” Gore said.
A Geyserville native and son of late fire chief Dean Turbeville, the younger Turbeville holds two jobs. Sometimes it's a red-truck day - when he's Geyserville's part-time fire chief. Most of the week, it's a white-truck day: Turbeville is a career battalion chief with Cal Fire overseeing the state fire service's Russian River district.
All told, he runs fire protection for some of Sonoma County's most combustible terrain, from The Sea Ranch on the Sonoma Coast and along the lower Russian River to the Sonoma-Lake county border in the northeastern mountains.