In some ways, the scenes at the Camp fire in Paradise are familiar to Sonoma County fire crews sent north to return the help offered during last year’s devastating firestorm in the North Bay.
There is the enormous scale of the destruction, the profound sense of loss, the chaos, the darkness, the noxious air, according to two local fire officials deployed in the region.
But after recent years of escalating wildfire destruction and a rising civilian death toll in population centers like Santa Rosa, Redding and now Paradise, there is also a growing risk among firefighters of what one Sonoma County veteran Friday called “emotional fatigue.”
“This community is gone,” said retired Rincon Valley Fire Chief Jack Piccinini, who is serving on the Cal Fire incident command team for the Camp fire. “There is nothing left, and I really do think that the firefighters are experiencing high levels of stress over this. They’re hardworking, strong. Firefighters are going to go out there and they’re called to perform, but it’s gut wrenching to them.”
Major wildfires are burning at both ends of California, an increasingly common event as the effects of drought, forest mortality, rural development and climate change extend fire season and increase its risks.
Firefighters who stood in the path of the Tubbs fire as it bore down on Santa Rosa last year understand the stakes. Those now serving on two strike teams deployed on the Camp fire since Thursday recognize the consequences.
Paradise “looks like a bomb went off,” said Windsor Fire Battalion Chief Mike Elson, who is leading a team of 22 Sonoma County firefighters.
“All of the guys are saying that it’s really similar to the Tubbs fire,” he said. “Certainly, the same shock of the devastation has been hitting everybody.”
The team already was on patrol in Sonoma County early Thursday because of very strong winds and high fire conditions when the Camp fire broke out around 6:30 a.m. Thursday. By around 10 a.m., they were en route to the Camp fire and worked until 3:30 p.m. Friday, fighting mostly to save isolated structures that still stood among the hundreds of buildings that already had been burned down, leaving only some scarred chimneys, burned rubble and the remnants of heavy appliances behind. Downed power lines are everywhere.
Elson described a hard-fought effort to save a newer senior living facility in Paradise that had been constructed of fire -resistant materials and had thus withstood flames that destroyed everything around it during the fire’s initial run.
But the fire hydrants in town were inoperable, and when the flames came back up, the only water source was a single 2,000-gallon water tender that came north with the strike team.
As tender drivers made the 30-minute trip to replenish supplies, fire crews dispersed to other missions, but “within an hour it was burning again” and the senior center was a loss, Elson said.
“The crew was really bummed out,” he said.
Firefighters are trained to apply their skills to a problem and make things better. But like the Tubbs fire and the other wind-driven wildfires that swept through the North Bay last year, fire crews spent hours not battling flames, but doing anything they could to get panicked people out of harm’s way while everything around them burned, said Piccinini, a long-time Santa Rosa Fire battalion chief.