Burned firefighters were ‘out-gunned’ by Valley fire
Trained to jump off helicopters and launch early attacks on wildfires with only the tools on their backs, four firefighters took off from the Boggs Mountain Helitack Base in a Super Huey chopper Saturday during the Valley fire’s first explosive moments.
Firefighters Niko Matteoli, Richard Reiff, Logan Pridmore and Capt. Pat Ward hit the ground on the northern slope of Cobb Mountain in Lake County and went head-to-head with the fire, which would rip through more than 40,000 acres in its first eight hours.
In that first hour, the inferno’s flames overtook them, forcing the men to seek shelter in cocoon-like protective tents in a harrowing scene with fire burning all around them.
“Just four guys, they go right to the head of the fire, that’s what they’re trained to do,” said Matteoli’s grandfather, Ron Matteoli of Santa Rosa, a retired career firefighter with Cal Fire. “It was so big and explosive; They were out-gunned.”
The men suffered significant second-degree burns. The worst were sustained by their captain, Ward, who was the last to take shelter because he made sure the other firefighters were protected, according to Matteoli, who spent days at the hospital with his grandson.
On Tuesday, the injured firefighters remained at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Mathisen said that Matteoli, Reiff and Pridmore had been transferred out of the burn unit and were “in good spirits.” Ward’s burns required more significant care.
“They were on the ground in the very early stages of initial attack,” Mathisen said. “That shows you how erratic the fire conditions were, how erratic the wind conditions were; it was explosive out there.”
Mathisen said the men had all been stationed at Boggs Mountain for the season.
Niko Matteoli, 23, of Santa Rosa comes from a line of Cal Fire firefighters in Sonoma County including his great grandfather Ralph Matteoli, grandfather Ron Matteoli and grandmother Debra Matteoli, who worked in Cal Fire administration.
Ron Matteoli said that, even while bedridden at the hospital, his grandson told him he was determined to continue his firefighting career.
Niko Matteoli started firefighting five years ago, and during the school year took fire services and EMT classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. He was born in Santa Rosa and spent several years with his parents in North and South Carolina until he and his younger sister moved in with their grandparents about six years ago.
Mathisen said he couldn’t provide information about how long the firefighters had been on the ground when they called for help because those details were part of the investigation by a specialized team brought in to review major injuries and accidents.
The Valley fire was first reported at 1:24 p.m. Saturday at a property on High Valley Road west of Bottle Rock Road near Alder Creek.
Within the hour, firefighters and Lake County sheriff’s deputies were evacuating residents in and around Cobb, and by 3:30 p.m. officials were ordering people near Harbin Hot Springs and Big Canyon Road to leave.
One of the first reports of the injured firefighters came at 3:56 p.m. when a Cal Fire spokesman posted on Twitter that the Boggs Mountain Helitack Copter 104 crew was being taken to a burn center.
Ron Matteoli said his phone rang at 4 p.m. A Cal Fire division chief from St. Helena was on the line.
“I said, ‘You’re getting a big fire, what are you doing calling us retirees? Are you calling us back to work?’ She said she had something serious to tell me,” said Matteoli, who fought fires for 37 years. “My heart just dropped right then because I knew. I knew it had to be with Niko and my worst fear was a copter crash.”
Matteoli said that he headed to Sacramento as soon as he heard his grandson and his crew were on two medical helicopters heading to the Sacramento burn unit.
“I know that area, I fought fire in that area many times, it’s all heavy brush, pines, some of the most heavy fuels and dry conditions,” Ron Matteoli said. “I’ll tell you, it turns into a wall of flame.”
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You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.