This Is What It’s Like To Fight The Deadliest Wildfire In California History

“This fire is going to go down in history,” said the 43-year-old captain from the Petaluma Fire Department, about 30 minutes south of Santa Rosa. “It was the perfect storm.”

After a week, 15 wildfires are still burning across a large chunk of Northern California. The magnitude of the blaze, which has charred about 220,000 acres, required just as enormous of a response.

“They all started at the same time and are screaming for resources,” said Chico Fire Department Captain Carlos Munoz, pointing to a large map with big chunks of red marking their ongoing battle. “The first guys out there went for 72-hours straight without food.”

Not to mention, the thousands of California firefighters dispatched to fight this blaze had already been relentlessly working since fire season started in June.

Dozens of departments and agencies have woven together to tackle the fires. Crews of inmate firefighters have been hacking through brush, dispatchers are relaying information, some specialize in structural analysis protection, while others are brought on to assist with forestry.

There are nearly 3,750 personnel fighting fires in Sonoma County alone, so it literally is a city, outfitted with outdoor sinks, bathrooms, and showers. Every morning and evening they line up at the chow line. Sunday evening, a group of twenty-somethings played cards while a fifty-something had his feet up on a cooler reading his Kindle.

Officials don’t know how long the will be fighting since they only just made headway against the blazes on Sunday and any change in weather could set that back. Meaning these firefighters could be living and working like this for and it’s emotionally draining.

“Our families don’t know when we are coming home and often it’s hard to contact them,” said Weaver, who is married with two kids. “Fighting something like this takes an emotional toll and has a ripple effect most people don’t understand. Life stops when these fires happen.”

Search and rescue crews and firefighters are still scouring ash for bodies, finding burnt animals, and letting weary, heartbroken residents back into completely decimated neighborhoods to homes that no longer exist.

“Fire doesn’t usually do what it did here,” Paul Greiner, an engineer from Rocklin Fire Department, explained while driving through a cordoned-off part of Santa Rosa. “This is the most fatalities I’ve seen in my career and it’s incredible. The loss of life is mind-boggling and having to search through total neighborhoods with cadaver dogs. This hasn’t happened before.”

Normally, people don’t see such a robust firefighting operation up close. But since the bulk of this wildfire is attacking a city of 175,000 people, plus several others, residents have poured in to volunteer any and all services to say thank you.

Firefighters say this outpouring of support is helping them get through this catastrophic disaster, which most have never experienced.

“This came through a major city. It’s not normal. It looks like someone flew over in a C-13 and pulled the trigger and dropped a bomb,” said Jason Jones, who came from Nevada. “I’ve been doing this 30 years and I still can’t get over what it looks like.”

Leaning against the engine parked in the front yard of a home they were preparing to protect, Bonilla said the emotional toll is just as demanding as the physical.

“You learn to deal with what you see. I know people who have lost homes here and it’s hard to see how little we could do for how fast it went,” the 31-year-old said.


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