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Kincade fire spotlighted Marshall Turbeville, Geyserville and Cal Fire chief, at his best

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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.

And Turbeville is obsessed with preparing for the next fire in that territory.

He believes the county is experiencing the hot end of a 50-year fire cycle. In his mind, he sees a map overlaying the major wildfires of the 1960s, when fewer people lived in the woods, through to today.

For a self-described “antisocial” guy, Turbeville’s week is packed with community events, including some outside his district. A married father of four children ages 3 to 16, Turbeville admits his work too often pulls him away from family because he can’t turn down an invitation for an event that touches on fire prevention and preparedness.

“The battle is won right now,” Turbeville said. “It’s really what people do now that will make a difference when the big fire comes.”

Early hours of Kincade fire

The Kincade fire started in The Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal power field, spanning the rugged, forested border of Sonoma and Lake counties. The area is dotted with place names that reflect fire’s long history here: Burned Mountain, Black Mountain and Devil’s Kitchen. The fire sparked near a high-voltage transmission line where PG&E would later report finding a broken jumper cable. The cause remains under investigation.

Turbeville was at the scene of a vehicle crash when the blaze was first reported about 9:25 p.m. on Oct. 23. He called dispatch for Calpine, which operates most of the geothermal plants. The alarm he heard in the dispatcher’s voice led him to immediately order more fire engines to the area.

The Kincade fire would go on to scorch 77,758 acres and destroy 374 structures over two weeks. During that time, strike team leaders called on Turbeville for his unmatched knowledge of the terrain and fire behavior.

He became a leader in the massive command force and a lifeline even for longer-tenured veterans running the ground game against flanks of the fire.

“If you had a question ... I have a division supervisor in charge of me, technically, but I’d pick up the phone and call Marshall,” said Jack Piccinini, a retired chief of Windsor and Rincon Valley fire who continues battling fires as a volunteer in Sebastopol.

The Kincade fire threatened a rerun of 2017, when fires roared out of wildland areas and leveled whole neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. On Sunday, Oct. 27, Piccinini was leading a mission to get ahead of the blaze, to cut it off before it hit Healdsburg. Thick smoke made it nearly impossible to navigate in Alexander Valley.

Following Turbeville’s instructions, Piccinini led a team to Passalacqua Road where it dead-ends by the Russian River. Their hoses were ready when the fire arrived, and the crews nursed the flames down to the river and prevented its spread from there.

Turbeville had also suggested what to do next, and so Piccinini took his team to the other side of the river, to Bailhache Avenue.

“He knew — not because he was in a helicopter, not because he was right there looking at the head of it,” Piccinini said. “He knew off the back of his hand without a lot of work, this fire is going to go here.”

Checking on landowners

Turbeville knew the ranchers on the front lines of the fire by name. He knew who was likely to stay behind, defying evacuation orders to protect their homes.

Deep in the hills on Pine Flat Road, about 4 miles from the fire’s origin, Rody Jonas stayed behind to protect his home after sending his wife and two children to safety. He had planned for this; he had defensible space, water, hose line, equipment and firefighting experience.

Jonas is adamant that staying behind is not a wise choice for most and he strongly advises against it. But that’s what he chose, and he believes he saved his home from the fire due to a combination of luck and preparation over a long day and a half of grueling work cutting fire breaks and putting out spot fires.

Jonas trained under Turbeville as a volunteer nearly 20 years ago and recalls the chief describing the three main options when fighting fire: attack it, fall back or do nothing.

“Doing nothing is actually doing something. Truth is, there are times when you need to maintain your readiness, save your energy, save your water,” said Jonas, who said tutelage under Turbeville has stuck with him.

That night, Turbeville showed up about dawn to check on Jonas. The fire chief knew the phone lines were down and he could get word to the rancher’s family that he was OK.

“He rolls in, it’s burning all around our place,” Jonas said. “I’m haggard. I’ve been up 30 hours, I had another 10 to go. He smiles and looks at me and goes, ‘Hey Rody. I love what you’ve done with the place. It’s so tidy.’ That sense of humor. That was perfect.”

‘Out helping everybody else’

Behind most firefighters are their families.

Some admire Turbeville for his precise, empirical mind — one firefighter said he was known as “The Wizard.”

But as Dad he gets eye rolls around home from his kids, said his wife, Anneke Turbeville.

Marshall and Anneke met as undergraduates at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He almost continued on with graduate studies in fire science, but was drawn into the fire service, like his father before him. He did seasonal work until he became a full-time Cal Fire employee in 2000. He’s been chief in Geyserville since 2013.

His work has taken him to big fires across California, resulting in a wide network of familiar faces.

It seems like everywhere the family goes, even far beyond Sonoma County, there inevitably will be some moment where Turbeville runs into someone he knows from fighting fires. He’ll stop in his tracks on vacations if a fire breaks out back home, spending time on the phone advising people what to do.

“He’s really smart. He’s good at memorizing his facts. He’s really good at numbers. He remembers everything,” said Anneke, who works part time with the fire district as an administrative assistant.

As with many first responders, work takes him away from home in times of disaster, when he could be most helpful to his family. On the first night of the Kincade fire, he roused Anneke awake and advised her to get the family out of harm’s way. The fire had burned down into Alexander Valley, throwing embers into the brush along the Russian River, dangerously close to Geyserville, his home.

“When I need him, he’ll be out helping everybody else — and you know that,” Anneke Turbeville said. “He knows he can rely on me.”

Chief as mentor and partner

Turbeville is known as a coach, the kind of encouraging fire boss who gets the most out of his employees and from the residents he seeks to safeguard.

He has devoted countless hours helping residents, such as Hanselman on Coyote Ridge Road, start emergency preparedness groups — a priority for the area, said Fred Peterson, board president of the Geyserville Fire Protection District.

Rural communities today need a strong fire program to make plans for all sorts of emergencies — fires, earthquakes, floods — because when disaster strikes, they often must fend for themselves, he said.

“The days of firefighters sitting in the station waiting for the buzzer to go off are over,” Peterson said.

Rural fire departments also act as the first line of defense against wildfires.

Turbeville has helped secure more than $1 million in grant money for northern Sonoma County over the past two years to support programs that have helped property owners clear brush from their land and rural roads, as well as a $540,000 grant to help protect the Lake Sonoma watershed from future fires.

Anne Crealock, senior environmental specialist with Sonoma Water, the county agency, said Turbeville has been “a great partner” in efforts to protect the local drinking water system, particularly after the 2017 fires.

“He knows northern Sonoma County like the back of his hand, he is a strategic out-of-the-box thinker, and he is incredibly generous with his time and expertise,” Crealock said.

Turbeville teaches forestry and other courses to aspiring firefighters at the Cal Fire academy in Amador County and at Santa Rosa Junior College.

He has civil engineering and natural resources degrees from Cal Poly. He’s also a sworn peace officer who can make arrests, such as the night in 2016 when he apprehended a woman lighting about a dozen small wildfires off remote Stewart Point Skaggs Springs Road in northwestern Sonoma County.

“I got a phone call, knew the people out there. I had a jump-start,” Turbeville said.

Spreading safety message

On a recent morning — it was a white-truck day — Turbeville sat around a table at Cal Fire’s Hilton station east of Guerneville. The crew of eight had just reviewed safety procedures for felling trees. Turbeville spread old newspaper editions from the 1960s and the 1990s on the table and talked about the fires with such familiarity it was as if he’d been there.

“History is repeating itself, in a way,” firefighter Jose Garcilazo said.

“You should know that hillside, how to get there. That’s what matters at 2 a.m. — you know the folks who live there,” Turbeville said to the crew.

That morning, the entire group went to a property on Sweetwater Springs Road adjacent to Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve. They were there to advise the landowner, Fred Von Renner, about preparing for fire.

Von Renner grew up in Guerneville and has been running an 80-acre spread with pigs, chickens and 300 apple trees for about 25 years. His property is adjacent to more than 6,000 acres of public wildland to the west and dense private forest to the east.

The gathered firefighters stood near debris piles ready to burn after rainfall, and they shared stories about the Kincade fire — how the landscaping and other property features made it easier or more difficult to fight flames.

They described using chain saws to clear bushes near homes. They described burning patio furniture falling from the sky. They described how flying embers hit the sides of houses and fell to the ground — sparking flames where there was brush or mulch but dying out where there was dirt.

Von Renner said he’s worked every day since the 2017 fires — when he realized how unprepared he was should a big fire come near — to remove low tree limbs, dead tanoaks and scrappy brush. He has installed a fire hydrant and hose.

Turbeville suggested he post a laminated property map by the front gate so arriving firefighters know about that hydrant and the pool — potentially vital resources during a fire.

“You’ve given us some advantages, so what you’re doing is great,” Turbeville said. “It’s all about increasing your odds.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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