Rebuilding Sonoma County: Taking care of first responders who rushed into the fires

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Like almost everyone else in and around Santa Rosa, Tony Niel and his family were fast asleep when the robocall came early in the morning of Oct. 9, ordering an immediate evacuation.

Niel jumped up, looked out the window, and saw a wall of flame. He and his wife, Carol, barely had time to hustle their two young sons, Jordan and Mason, and their dog into their car and truck and convoy down Mark West Springs Road to Highway 101.

They followed a long train of fellow evacuees, with houses and hillsides lighting up around them. But the freeway was packed, smoke and embers were jumping all lanes near the Luther Burbank Center, so they took the River Road exit and conferred.

“We decided Carol and the kids had to work their way back up (side roads) toward a friend’s house,” said Niel, a Santa Rosa Fire Department firefighter. “And I had to get to work.”

That was perhaps the most traumatic moment of the many that followed for the Niel family: telling the kids that their father had to head back into the flames.

“They were crying, saying, ‘Daddy, don’t go, we don’t want you to die,’ ” said Niel. “Carol was crying. I was tearing up. We knew by then that our house was gone. I told them that I didn’t want to die either, that I was going to be very careful, but that I had to try to help people, because that’s what we do. I told them to listen to their mama, and then I worked my way down to Station 2 on Stony Point Road.”

Niel picked up fellow firefighter Drew Peterson at the station and the pair drove up to Fountaingrove, where they helped with evacuations. At one point they rescued Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, as the couple fled barefoot down a street of smoking asphalt, the flames roaring down on them from all sides.

They were, in short, heroes — a tribute Niel downplays. There were a lot of heroes that night, he said.

But if Niel was a hero, he was also a victim. He and his family lost their home, along with virtually every possession. They had to live in an RV for 1½ months on property owned by Carol’s boss; later, they found a rental off 4th Street. They hope to rebuild. Someday.

Niel considers himself fortunate, given that his family is safe and they share a strong religious faith that sustains them. But it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s the emotional stuff that’s the hardest, not the material things,” said Niel. “You’re ripped out of your home, out of your comfort zone, the bed and routine you’ve known forever. I’m not going to lie — it’s extremely hard. We have our faith in God, and that’s what has kept us going on the tough days. But I feel we’ve been robbed of our sense of safety, and it’s hard to get that back.”

The October fires forced everyday people into heroic roles, rescuing others, making stands against the flames and coming to the aid of those who lost loved ones, their homes and businesses. Many of those on the front lines were first responders — firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s officials, paramedics and other medical personnel. They were called to help, whether by dispatch or by sheer sense of mission.

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

And many, because of what they experienced and lost themselves, are struggling in the fires’ wake.

Santa Rosa Police Lieutenant John Snetsinger retains vivid memories of those first horrific days. He immediately deployed to the front lines of the disaster, where he stayed for most of the ensuing week. Virtually all of his interactions involved people who were traumatized — and that included the men and women in his own department.

“One thing that really sticks with me from that first night involved one of our guys who knew his house was burning down and never wavered from his post, from doing his job,” Snetsinger said. “We learned a lot about our own people during the fires. And most of what we learned was good.”

Snetsinger also learned that everyone is different — including individual cops and firefighters.

“People are individuals,” said Snetsinger. “Some people were so distressed by what they were seeing that it had a deep impact on their emotional state. Others were able to just keep going at a hundred miles an hour.”

Responses also seemed to vary by background, Snetsinger said.

“The responses of an officer who’d just moved here from another city were likely to be very different from one who was a longtime member of the community,” Snetsinger observed. “I’ve lived in Santa Rosa for 50 years. I grew up on the west side of town, and went to Schaefer Elementary. I knew hundreds of people who were directly impacted by the fires, and I was personally affected by their loss.”

“One of the main takeaways from the fires is that we’re not robots. We see a lot of trauma in our jobs (as police), but something as extreme as this shows you where everyone’s upper limits are, and they differ. In a lot of cases, we saw those upper limits reached on that first night.”

That sets up a dilemma for first responders, who are expected to emerge from any disaster hale and hearty, take a shower, bag eight hours in bed, and be back at it the next day. As Snetsinger observed, that’s not how it always works. Identifying and treating traumatized first responders can be difficult, given the “suck it up” ethos of the profession.

“Most critical events are over in a matter of seconds, and (police officer or firefighter) responses are often concluded in an hour or less,” said Joel Fay, a psychologist and former cop who logged 33 years in law enforcement in Los Angeles and San Rafael.

But the North Bay fires lasted 21 days, and many police and firefighters were victims as well, noted Fay, who is providing counseling services for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office employees. “Some lost homes. A lot of them were working on the fires and they couldn’t reach their families, and they were worried about their spouses and kids getting out alive. But they couldn’t and wouldn’t leave their posts, so the stresses were extreme.”

First responders, said Fay, “are generally quite resilient, and when they go through something like the fires, they instinctively try different things to overcome the effects of the experience — working out, for example. But points can be reached where resilient strategies don’t work, and that may not be immediately apparent. You can hit that crisis a year later, or even several years after the incidents. Delayed stress reactions are common in these kinds of situations. It’s similar to combat. You do your tour, and a year later there are intrusive dreams, your spouse wonders why you’re irritable or drinking too much. Things can fall apart.”

Virtually all of Sonoma County’s fire and law enforcement agencies offer counseling and therapy to ameliorate the effects of trauma, but not all approaches may be equally effective, said Cyndi Foreman, the fire prevention officer for the Rincon Valley/Windsor Fire Protection District.

“First responder culture kind of requires you to be stoic, but it can be hard to keep that stiff upper lip, especially when you still see the devastation all around you,” said Foreman, who rushed to Larkfield when the fires began raging through. She helped evacuate panicked residents to safety and her memories are filled with images of impenetrable smoke and towering flames.

“We’re used to going on strike teams and then coming back to our own unaffected communities,” said Foreman. “But now it’s our community that’s been destroyed. You can feel powerless, and that can be devastating for first responders.”

So devastating that suicide is one of the leading causes of death among firefighters and police, said Foreman.

“The pressures can be so great that deep depression can set in,” Foreman said. “You don’t want to burden your spouse with the baggage you’re carrying around. And clinical therapists often don’t know the particular issues, the struggles around this kind of work, so they may not be helpful in some cases. That’s why peer counseling is gaining so much momentum in firefighting and police circles.”

Trained peer counselors, said Foreman, offer something traditional therapists don’t: a bone-deep understanding of the job and its specific stresses.

“They know what you’re going through because they’re your colleagues,” Foreman said. “They’ve gone through it, too, or maybe they’re still going through it. Having an open and honest conversation with a brother or sister in your profession can have a real impact in reducing PTSD.”

Fay agrees with Foreman that qualified peer counselors are an essential resource, “but we also have to have clinicians available who are competent with both trauma and public-safety culture, and we have to have enough of them on hand to provide effective treatment to anyone who needs it. Familiarity with public-safety culture is particularly important. If a responder is hurting and he goes to a clinician who clearly doesn’t understand that culture, he won’t return and he’ll probably label all therapists as ineffective.”

Spencer Crum, a sergeant and spokesman with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, said both peers and trained clinicians are important for addressing first-responder stress.

“We’ve held two counseling sessions, one right after the fires and then a briefing six months later to see how everybody is doing,” said Crum. “We use a peer support team in conjunction with the services of a psychologist (Joel Fay). In the end, you can’t characterize things in broad strokes. The impacts on the members of our department were all different. Twenty-nine of our employees lost homes. Some are still living in trailers. But not all responses are the same. Everyone saw their duties, registered their responses, in different ways. Some were more emotional, some less. In the end, we’re just dealing with it like the rest of the community. We’re all in this together.”

Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Department Marshal Paul Lowenthal, another first responder who lost his home, said the support of both peers and professionals was instrumental in helping him work through the stress. Lowenthal was on the job as soon as the fires began late in the evening on Oct. 8, and stayed on the fire lines for a full week. He knew his home was destroyed that first night, a Sunday.

“For me, the hardest thing was telling my 9-year-old daughter our house was gone,” said Lowenthal, a single parent. “She was at her mom’s home that night in Petaluma, so she was safe. But all that first night, I kept trying to figure out how to tell her that our home, the keepsakes we had from our trips together, everything — was gone. We finally told her on Monday, and it was a very difficult conversation.”

Personally, said Lowenthal, “I came in to the assistance center our union had established at the fairgrounds on Friday, five days after the fires started. In that time, I’d only had six hours of sleep. I’d been wearing the same uniform for the entire five days. I was exhausted, running completely on adrenaline.”

He was quickly taken in by a ready and responsive staff. A friend from a Los Angeles County Fire Department strike team immediately went shopping and bought him a duffel bag and new clothes. He was able to rest, eat and talk to people who helped him with everything from insurance claims to trauma counseling.

“It was amazing to come into that sea of people, a lot of them peers from other departments, who were there just for you,” Lowenthal said. “It was a tremendous relief to have a system in place ready to catch us when we could finally slow down, to have people who could help us begin our own recovery.”

The signs of renewal are everywhere in Sonoma County. The debris has been hauled away. New homes are going up. But the scars on both the land and the people are profound. Full recovery will require ongoing and active intervention on all fronts and for all residents — including first responders, said Fay.

“Whenever I’m in Sonoma County, I still see the signs — ‘Thank you firefighters, thank you first responders,’ ” said Fay. “We all know the stories, how they saved lives. Now we need to be there for them, to make sure they have the treatment and resources they need. We need to be there to save their lives.”

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