As fire spread through Middletown, the small team of firefighters tasked with defending the town had moments to make a tough decision: Where would they make their stand?
The outcome of their choice would determine what homes would be saved, and what homes would be surrendered to the unrelenting flames.
“Sadly, we just finally had to draw a line down the middle of the street,” lamented Jack Piccinini, a Santa Rosa fire battalion chief who had joined up with a team of Sonoma County firefighters to try to save the town of 1,300 people from the advancing Valley fire.
For hours, the fate of much of the town seemed to be in the hands of the gritty team of 20 firefighters from the Graton, Rancho Adobe, Sonoma Valley, Lakeville and Gold Ridge fire departments. They’d been fighting the fast-moving blaze at Hidden Valley Lake when word came out that flames were headed for nearby Middletown.
“We had to get there ahead of it. We did. It just didn’t care that we were there,” Piccinini said of the erratic fire.
The Valley fire was raging on several fronts, and resources were thin. The Sonoma County team worked alone for a significant part of the night before reinforcements arrived, Piccinini said.
Sometimes the firefighters won — they saved the high school and several businesses and homes. Too often, they said, they lost — several apartment complexes and blocks of homes went up in flames.
It wasn’t a fair fight.
Overwhelmed, the firefighters lacked numbers and equipment, said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who led the local strike team. Winds gusting 20 to 30 mph drove the flames, while propane tanks exploded in the darkness around them, spreading the fire. And at some time during the night the power went out and the city’s water system failed, drying up the hydrants. The only nearby water source was the swimming pool at Middletown High School, and firefighters then drew from that all night.
After trying to save home after home after home with mixed results, the decision was made to stop and make a stand, Piccinini said.
Tactical decisions on what to save and what to let go hinged upon quick assessments, Baxman said. How close together are the homes? Do they have defensible space making it more likely they could be saved? Are they already on fire?
The decision was made time and again as the firefighters first worked one side of town, then the other, as the fire traveled.
Baxman estimated one-third to half the town burned.
“The crews did an awesome job. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t save everything we went to,” Piccinini said.
“The town of Middletown is devastated. City blocks have been devastated. Commercial buildings destroyed. Apartment buildings destroyed,” he said, describing the firefight as similar to some major fires he’d faced in Southern California when wildfires collide with civilization.
“We needed to be everywhere. It was crazy. We were doing classic, ‘go to a structure and try to save it. Go to a structure and try to save it,’” Piccinini said. “We tried to save the hamburger joint. Propane tanks were shooting off left and right. We were standing there and right before our eyes a commercial building in a little strip mall across from the Chevron station” burst into flames.