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Sonoma County crews join battle against Dixie fire

Sonoma County residents have become familiar with the site of out-of-area firetrucks — from all over California and sometimes even neighboring states — driving the local roads and battling flames on the front lines.

A small army of local firefighters are returning the favor at the Dixie fire, the largest conflagration currently burning in California. The fire, the sixth-largest in the state’s history, had burned more than 504 square miles as of Thursday.

The Cal Fire public information officer assigned to the event couldn’t say precisely how many of the 4,785 firefighters, 341 engines, 61 bulldozers and 24 helicopters assigned to the Dixie fire were from Sonoma County, but “all hands on deck” would appear to be the operative term.

At least 56 local crew members and 13 engines were identified through calls to individual fire departments and districts. Those pitching in included Sonoma County Fire with three engines, the Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley, Monte Rio and Cloverdale fire departments with two each, and Petaluma and Healdsburg with one apiece.

A representative of Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa operation said her organization was currently supplying three strike teams, one bulldozer team and “a dozen or so overhead personnel” — meaning team leaders involved in central command.

Only the residents of Plumas County could accurately describe the assistance they’re getting from Sonoma County’s battle-hardened personnel. But crews working here know how it feels to get backup.

“It’s like the cavalry has arrived,” said Steve Akre, chief of the Sonoma Valley Fire District. “I’ve been a chief for almost five years, and we’ve gone through the Nuns and Tubbs fires in that time, and seen the Kincade and Glass fires in the area. To see the relatively fresh faces come in and give our crews a little bit of relief, it’s a tremendous feeling. Our crews work so long and hard, especially at the beginning of those fires, they don’t get into any rest cycle.”

Many of the Sonoma County crews now trying to beat back the Dixie fire traveled there directly from the Tamarack fire, at the California-Nevada state line south of Lake Tahoe, or the Beckwourth Complex, at the Lassen-Plumas county line. One Cloverdale engine team worked at the Dixie for about a week, got released by Cal Fire, drove home and spent 24 hours of downtime before being summoned back. It’s a wearying cycle that Sonoma County firefighters have become accustomed to.

Capt. Rob Giles’ SRFD truck bugged out of Station 6 on Calistoga Road around 2 a.m. the morning of July 21, and reached the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico about 6 a.m. The crew headed directly to the southern edge of Lake Almanor off Highway 29 and wound up spending most of the next weeks in that area, or near Butt Valley Reservoir just to the south. Most of their time was taken pouncing on spot fires and burning fire lines to stop the Dixie’s advance.

Giles’ group returned to Santa Rosa on Tuesday.

The tools and strategies of firefighting are generally consistent, but the Dixie fire contrasts with most of the North Bay blazes in significant ways, Giles said.

“Mainly, the fires that are local here have been driven by wind,” Giles said. “They haven’t had a lot of wind up there. But the receptibility of the fuels — they’re so dry, any ember that lands anywhere can set off a new fire. I think what’s happening there now, they do have the wind as well, so it has become more challenging.”

Brutal work, with dire consequences hanging in the balance. And nothing new to Sonoma County’s first responders.

“It’s kind of the fire season thing, man,” Giles said.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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