Jeff Zimmerman: Retired firefighter, naturalist shares views of Northern California firestorm horrors

Jeff Zimmerman/for The Signal

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it for myself: More than 40 people killed, some 7,700 structures destroyed, a dozen or so of them large commercial buildings, hundreds injured and more than 15,000 still evacuated Friday, all during a multi-day wind-driven inferno pushed by hot, dry “diablo” winds – Northern California’s version of Santa Anas.

Dry offshore winds, compressed by the narrow brush- and tree-lined canyons, rushed down into Santa Rosa at well over 60 mph, hurling swirling firebrands great distances into residential areas not normally prone to wildfires, located just two miles north of town center.

In the timber and brush along upper Tubbs Lane, I could understand that a downed power line or blown transformer may have sparked a wildfire at night in the strong winds, but that the city itself sustained such massive structural loss was hard to believe. The Tubbs Fire was fanned down Porter Creek Road with alarming rates of spread. Within a few hours firefighters estimated the fire at 20,000 acres.

In Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park area near the 101 Freeway a homey housing tract of single-family dwellings is wiped off the map; the Journeys End Mobile Home Park destroyed.

North of Santa Rosa, Mendocino was also hard hit with a family losing a teenage son in the driveway and another relative forced to endure leg amputations from running through the fire to escape. How do you ever survive something that horrible? It will be singed in the survivors’ minds forever.

People have underestimated the power of wildfires for years. “It won’t happen to me” is the mindset of many. They argue about prescribed burning and air pollution, brush removal destroying sensitive habitat, unsightly logging and so on.

Unfortunately, it takes a massive disaster to get things done like better building codes, better water systems, wider roads, fire sprinkler ordinances, better brush clearance. Blue-ribbon panels’ reports have already explained this after other massive fires in California foothill communities.

Burned alive

A burning wheelchair curb-side sets the tragic tone along Porter Creek Road, where cars still smoldered trapped behind downed power poles, their doors flung open by panicked motorists. Along Mark West Springs, roofs on top of hillside homes still burning several days after the main blaze roared through Santa Rosa.

It will take years for families to negotiate with insurance adjusters, to get architectural drawings, negotiate with contractors, get water, sewer and power lines back in service. Some may never try to rebuild at all. But the scars in their minds will never go away, even once their homes are rebuilt. You just don’t forget a fire like this.

Nighttime fires under sinister “diablo” winds; very short notification – if any – to evacuate was the cause for confusion. People burned alive in their driveways and furiously burning homes as fires moving at explosive rates devoured everything in their paths. At least 16 large simultaneous wind-driven urban interface fires have caused 20,000-40,000 people to flee in the dark of night as scores of homes were razed.

At the height of the fires, nearly 100, 000 people were forced to leave. Livestock, pets, wildlife all killed in the flames. Wineries in the foothills destroyed, two hospitals with patients in critical condition evacuated amongst the flames. All too much for the mind to fathom in just a few days’ time.

Setting down the camera on several occasions and picking up garden hoses to extinguish hundreds of spot fires. Training police officers on site how to tackle incipient blazes to keep homes from burning. A day to remember.

Back in Southern California as weather forecasts call for Santa Ana winds, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and images from Santa Rosa with you all. We are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.

Prepare for fire in your community with the Ready, Set, Go! Program you can find on the Los Angeles County Fire Department website, If fire nears your neighborhood, please have your vehicles packed and emergency kits ready. Include first aid kits, drinking water, flashlight, extra batteries and blankets. Have your valuable papers in a box ready to go.

Don’t stay behind and clog emergency ingress and egress roads at the last critical minutes. If the winds are too strong, a garden hose won’t control the main fire. However, keeping wood piles away from homes, clearing leaf litter from roofs and rain gutters, having garden hoses and ladders at the ready may control small fires from ember showers in the strong winds.

In times of fire, wear long-sleeved cotton shirts, cotton blue jeans, sturdy boots, a set of goggles and leather work gloves. Do not wear polyester or synthetic fabrics, which melt and burn, nor flip flops or shorts.

Think like you are going to war.

Jeff Zimmerman, a resident of Neenach, is a retired San Louis Obispo fire captain with a B.S. in fire management. He’s also a state-certified naturalist and an avid photographer. “When these large fires occur, it is time for learning, documenting fire behavior, evacuation patterns, fire stack effect” and so on, he wrote of his recent experiences in Northern California.“ I love the fire service and I must stay active or I would die.”


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