Clint St. Martin's house was destroyed during the Tubbs Fire on Mark West Springs Road, but managed to save his motorcycle. At the time, St. Martin was a volunteer firefighter with Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, fighting the fire elsewhere when his house burned. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Tested in war, wildfire, Sonoma County Marine honored for his tireless volunteer efforts

Clint St. Martin, a Marine, volunteer firefighter and contractor, has packed more living into three decades than many people do in a lifetime.

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A s a Marine platoon sergeant during the Iraq war in 2008, Clint St. Martin felt like he always had a “fighting chance,” leading 40 armed and trained men who could call on air support if needed under an enemy assault.

Not so nearly a decade later, when the Sonoma County volunteer firefighter found his engine trapped by the roaring flames of the Tubbs fire on Mark West Springs Road the night of Oct. 8, 2017.

“You felt utterly helpless,” said St. Martin, 35, a Santa Rosa building contractor recalling the two epic experiences of his life. He wound up spending that fearsome night in the Mark West Lodge parking lot with about three dozen other survivors of the blaze that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 4,600 homes, including his own.

Lean and fit, with close-cropped dark hair, a deep voice and an easy manner, St. Martin has the looks and the name for a Hollywood marquee. He’s also packed more living into three decades than many people do in a lifetime.

St. Martin is a single father, licensed to build homes, fly airplanes, drive fire trucks and provide emergency medical care. With degrees in sociology from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, he has climbed Mount Whitney, gone sky diving in Cloverdale and — in one of the few things St. Martin said he would rather not repeat — done a west coast swing dance on stage before a live audience.

“That’s a one and done,” he said, relaxing on a terrace of a home in the Mark West Springs area.

But it was for a good cause, the “Dancing with the Stars and Stripes” fundraiser for the Veterans Resource Centers of America, a live show in April that featured 11 couples in competition mimicking the well-known television show.

He’s a self-made guy. A renaissance fellow. We just wish there were a lot more of them in the community.Vietnam veteran Mike Ferguson

St. Martin and his partner, Brenda Shatto, a dance instructor and elementary school teacher, didn’t win, but they helped raise money for the nonprofit that assists veterans, and good causes are a big part of his life since graduating from high school in 2002 and immediately joining the Marines.

Hailed for his work with Devil Pups, a youth program fostered by the Marine Corps, St. Martin is this month’s recipient of the North Bay Spirit Award, a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast to honor everyday heroes for hands-on community service that goes above and beyond normal volunteering.

Nathan Jacobsen of Santa Rosa said St. Martin and the Devil Pups program were a “game-changer” for his son, Roby Hart, three years ago.

“Clint took him under his wing, as he does with all the kids,” getting Roby physically and mentally ready for the 10-day Devil Pups training encampment at Camp Pendleton, a 125,000-acre Marine base in San Diego County, Jacobsen said.

But the program, with active-duty Marine instructors, is more than an introduction to military service, he said. “It is about preparing these young kids to be productive and contributing members of their community.”

Hart, 18, who now lives in Folsom and works for a well-drilling company, said the rigorous program included miles of marching every day, jumping off a 25-foot tower into a pool and twice completing the Marine combat fitness test that includes a 75-yard sprint while carrying two 30-pound ammunition cans.

The instructors yelled at the teens from the start, and Hart said he learned “if they yell at you for something you have to yell back at them and be 100 percent sure of what you say.”

“It was challenging, but I loved it,” he said, admitting he went in as a “super shy” kid who stayed to himself.

Hart plans on joining the Marines, he said.

Mike Ferguson of Sebastopol, a Vietnam war veteran, said St. Martin captivated a crowd at the Sebastopol Rotary Club’s Veterans Day program in November. “He’s a self-made guy,” Ferguson said. “A renaissance fellow. We just wish there were a lot more of them in the community.”

St. Martin told the Rotarians about the time he went to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China with animal rights activist Odessa Gunn of Forestville in 2017 and stole a small shepherd-mix dog from a cage and made off with it. The dog, one of 10 Gunn brought home, now lives with a Petaluma family.

“His instincts were the dog had to be saved. He did it in a matter of seconds,” Ferguson said. “He hasn’t found a firewall he couldn’t get around.”

St. Martin lost the home he had built on Mark West Springs Road in the Tubbs fire, saving little more than the Victory Cross Country motorcycle he rode from there to the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department station on Sharp Road, where he was a volunteer. The agency has since been disbanded with its territory included in the new Sonoma County Fire District.

St. Martin grabbed a photo of himself and his daughter, Soraya, now 9, at their first baseball game and regrets leaving behind a flag signed by all the Marines in his platoon.

There was no fighting the firestorm, driven by 70 mph winds that made it strictly a lifesaving mission, alerting residents and getting them out of harm’s way. “The fire had jumped ahead of us. It was in front of us and behind us,” he said. “You could see the homes glowing bright red.”

The engine made it to safety at the lodge, where St. Martin found Joe Gray, a corporal in his platoon, who pulled a bag of jerky, a can of dip and two lawn chairs from his pickup.

“You had to make the best of it, like in Iraq,” St. Martin said. “You take a chaotic situation and make light of it.”

The Devil Pups program in Sonoma County was on the verge of collapse due to dwindling funds and enrollment when St. Martin took over as leader in 2010, said Ray Blum, a retired Marine colonel who was the encampment commander for 11 years.

“We were about to lose it,” he said. “He’s the guy that made it happen.”

St. Martin, who grew up in Santa Rosa, joined the Devil Pups encampment in the summer of 2001 before his senior year at Novato High School. A Marine recruiter had visited the campus and piqued St. Martin’s interest in the program for boys and girls ages 14 to 17.

“I thought it sounded like fun,” he said. “I couldn’t say no.”

Ten days after graduation, St. Martin left for Marine boot camp, then came out to enroll at SRJC as a Marine reservist. He started working as a contractor in 2005, and three years later, at age 26, led a 40-man platoon of Bay Area reservists called to active duty in Iraq for seven months.

“I saw an opportunity to change kids’ lives, to give them focus and drive in life,” he said.On the home front, St. Martin had been involved with the Devil Pups program since 2003, and gradually turned it into a year-round experience, with training in a host of skills and topics, including survival swimming, firearms safety, active-shooter drills, first aid, public speaking and history.

About 100 local teens have gone to the Devil Pups encampment under St. Martin’s tutelage, which has made lasting impacts.Actor Tom Selleck and Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett are among the more than 50,000 graduates from the program started in 1954 in Southern California. No payment is required for participants.

“He’s still one of the best people I know,” Roby Hart said. “If I need advice I always go to him.”

And St. Martin, who said he has to stay fit to keep ahead of vigorous teens, has at least one more item on his postwar bucket list: the Ironman 70.3 next May in Santa Rosa, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run, unlike anything he’s ever done.

“You’ve got to lead by example,” he said.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section. To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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