It’s been a summer of disasters, and then a fall of even more. The fall, it turned out, was on fire. In front of the TV in our Santa Fe vacation rental we watched our beloved wine country burn, an entire huge neighborhood leveled like a bomb had gone off. We checked in with friends periodically about our own home, two hours south, and the fires that burned even closer. One of those friends is the law enforcement officer who wrote this piece.
I know this guy. He’s a friend of ours. I know a little about his heart. I know a lot about his honesty. Integrity. He’s not a firefighter. But when called to help maintain order in Santa Rosa, Calif., he and his fellow officers didn’t hesitate. Without firefighting training and without equipment, they arrived to do what they could. To lend a hand.
This isn’t a story about firefighting. Those pros are courageous and skilled and we couldn’t live without them. All respect.
But in a time when law enforcement is often given a bad rap (and sometimes even deserves it) I hope this piece helps us recognize both the courage and the imperfections–the humanity–of officers. Most law enforcement officers are like you and me. They’re human. They make mistakes. And at the same time, they show incredible courage when responding to the call of duty. My friend is one officer but his story, as he points out, could be told by any of the hundreds (if not thousands) of officers who pitched in to help in a disaster. We couldn’t live without these men and women.
He took all the photos in this piece. He and his agency must remain anonymous.
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I’m a Deputy Sheriff and a trainer. When I train, I explain their three primary missions: defend the weak, uphold the constitution, and bring order to chaos.
A few weeks ago I was getting ready take a nap before my double shift with the Sheriff’s Department and received a message that I was being sent to Santa Rosa for the fire. The night before, I had smelt burning in San Francisco and called police dispatch, who said it was coming from Napa. Able to smell a fire that far away, I thought it had to be bad, but I didn’t have a clue.
Call of duty
I’m not a fire fighter, so to hear I was being sent up north meant things really were bad… really bad.. but I had no idea of what to expect. I’ve seen news footage of hurricanes and I’ve responded to disasters, but what I saw couldn’t compare. Thousands of homes burnt to the ground, open gas lines spewing flames like angry dragons, and utility lines laying around like toys after a kid’s birthday party.
Families who did everything right were looking at all their worldly possessions smoldering in ruins. Memories, pets, and maybe even loved ones were laying in ash in front of them. I’ve never seen devastation like that in person. But I was sent up there to do a job, provide a service, and let people know they weren’t alone.
Ronald Reagan once said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But on that day the looks I got from the citizens told a different story. I and my brothers and sisters in blue went up not knowing what we could do other than bring order to chaos, and that’s what we did. I was one of hundreds who showed up that day and one of thousands who showed up in the days that followed. We didn’t know the geography. We didn’t know the neighborhoods. But there was chaos.
I have been doing this job for a while. One thing I learned, is that very few people are completely innocent when I come into contact with them in my professional capacity. Some are, but not that many. The innocent victims are few and far between. Most of the time there is responsibility to go around. The gang member who got shot, the prostitute who got raped, the burglar who got stabbed, the drug abuser who OD’d on bad drugs. Is what happened to them all their fault? No, but, to put themselves into that situation and expect zero repercussions from their actions is a fantasy. So my ability to empathize is present, but my sympathy is sometimes lacking.
But this was different. There were thousands of victims, thousands. None of them did anything wrong other than buy a house and raise a family. My partner and I contacted them as they stood outside the smoldering ruins of their life’s ambitions, staring in disbelief. Grief and sadness washed over their faces, as they were standing yards away from an open gas mains spewing flames. Reminders of a little town called San Bruno and the gas line disaster that happened there came to mind, and we reminded them over and over and over again that day, to get them to move along to a safer area. I felt like shit. These people were victims, victims of a natural disaster. They didn’t do anything wrong and there wasn’t responsibility to be shared.
It was a different feeling.
Stepping into the breach
My partner and I spent a majority of time looking for people who would take advantage of a disaster for personal gain. We patrolled neighborhoods looking for looters and other signs of overt criminality. We found one house with electronic equipment stacked outside. We stopped and pulled our guns while looking inside to see if we could find any looters. As we announced we were outside the door, someone walked out of the bathroom and almost dropped his pants. We confirmed he lived there and the equipment outside his house was his. We cleared a lot of open houses that day.
But in disasters there are sometimes unlikely heroes. On multiple occasions my partner and I found empty Cal-Fire trucks carrying crews to fight the fire. Many of these were manned by inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation carrying inmates from fire camps. These were state prisoners, incarcerated for their crimes, but who had volunteered to be part of the crews to fight fires. Obviously these individuals weren’t a serious threat to society or they wouldn’t have been there. They were there on the line, digging ditches, cutting brush, and attempting to stop the flames from approaching homes of people they didn’t know.
Were these bad people doing a good thing or were they good people that got caught up in a bad thing earlier in their life? That wasn’t for us to judge. They were there helping. We offered them water and Gatorade as they shuffled by like zombies after their attempt to stem the tide of the fire, on their way to the next fight.
Lesson for us all: the little things
One thing that struck me in looking back in this surreal situation is how ingrained we are in the everyday items we take for granted not being dangerous. If there is one lesson I would like everyone to take out of all of this, it’s this:
The utilities we rely on to make our lives comfortable will kill you in a heart beat. Do not take them for granted, and do not think they won’t kill you the first second they get. Remember there was a town called San Bruno, destroyed by a gas line explosion.
I tell you this because I almost was careless about it twice. As we were driving through a neighborhood, we saw two houses across the street from each other burned to the foundation. In between the two was a power pole that was also badly burned. The pole was ash, but the magic items that power my TV and computer were still intact, and the power line crossing over the street had fallen to the ground. As we were driving along, I saw the power line laying across the road and I almost rolled the car over it until it dawned on me it was a downed power line. I stopped the car and backed away from it.
We called into dispatch advising there was a downed power line and to send PG&E out to deal with it. I’m pretty sure the electrical workers had their hands full with other emergencies that day. Most of the city of Santa Rosa was without power. So my partner and I found some burnt patio furniture and threw it in the middle of the road as a makeshift barricade to stop people from driving over the line.
But some don’t learn
As we exited the area, we warned everyone we passed about the downed power line and not to cross it. We came by four hours later and someone had pushed our make shift barricade to the side so they could drive over the wire. They took the utilities for granted. They were lucky.
The second time I almost took a utility for granted, we were following another marked unit down a winding road at a slow speed. A power pole had fallen over and the wires were sagging low across the road. The car in front of me pulled over onto the shoulder so they could cross under the power lines without the light bar touching them. I stopped my car and got on the loudspeaker: “maybe, just maybe we don’t want to drive under downed power lines. I don’t know… just a suggestion ? You know how long it will take the county to buy us a new car if you ruin that one?” These weren’t bad cops. They were good cops. But they took utilities for granted too.
In all the chaos sometimes little things get overlooked.
We finally got a meal break and I split a sandwich with someone, but truthfully I had lost my appetite hours before. But I scarfed it down, not knowing the next time I would eat and how much longer I would be up there.
I went outside and the second in command of my department was there looking at the smoke over the hills of his home town. He looked at me smoking a cigarette and told me it was the most surreal moment of his time up there, smoke up above and smoke down below. He also asked, “why have a cigarette when there was already enough smoke in the air?”
I guess he was allowed to be a jackass too.
We finally found a 7-11 with power and went inside to buy something to drink. As we got back into our car, we saw a Santa Rosa PD car roll past us with lights and sirens. Not knowing exactly what it was, we fell in line behind them. Ten minutes of speeding through the city we get to an apartment building. The right side of the building was in flames. My partner and I didn’t stop to think, we just bolted to the left side of the apartment building. I took the ground level, he took the upstairs. We forced the doors open and shouted at the inhabitants to leave, their building was on fire. We ran around to the rear of the building to evacuate those apartments as well, but some other cops stopped us and told us those apartments were already cleared. The fire department engine showed up right then. I didn’t drag anyone to safety, but I hope those in the apartments did get out.
Every small part helps
I did a small part in helping out in this disaster. Did I stop an assault? Did I pull anyone out of a burning building? Did I arrest the looter taking advantage of the situation? No to all of the above.
What I did was remain visible. I talked to those trying to live through this. I remained a visible reminder that the government was there and in some small part I hope that I brought order to chaos. But mine is just one of thousands of stories out there. My fellow brothers and sisters in blue answered the call and did the job that needed to be done.
Our mission is winding down up there. I’ve been up there several times since. I brought candy for kids knowing many of them are going to have a shitty Halloween.
We blocked off roads and patrolled the quiet town. The chaos had passed. After all is said and done we had the easy job. The hard part is coming in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. People will rebuild their lives, fill the void that this fire created. To create their own order.
I was but a small piece of the response. There are thousands of other stories – most of which will never be told. I am thankful I was able to do something, even if it wasn’t noticed in the grand scheme.