When the world was on fire

October 25, 2017

on-fireIt’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

on-fire 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.

Brutal truth

on-fireI 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

on-fireMy 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.

on-fireWere 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

on-fireOne 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.

on-fireThe 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.

on-fireI 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

on-fireI 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.








30 comments on “When the world was on fire
  1. robin rue says:

    How scary for the people living near or affected by the fires. I can’t even imagine.

  2. Nawal says:

    Omg I can’t even begin to imagine what you’re going through. I saw everything on the news and I was shocked. Kudos to everyone helping, God knows we need hereos now more than ever.

  3. Mary Lou says:

    I couldn’t stop reading this! Thank you for posting. My son is a retired law enforcement officer. I’ll be sharing this on FB.

  4. I love this. I understand that there are some bad police officers out there. There are some bad people at all levels of power, Unfortunately, those people have overshadowed the vast majority of public servants who are actually good and true and want to help us.

  5. Ruth curran says:

    “What i did was temain visible.” Powerful statement.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Wow. Just being there as a reminder to people that there order can be made from chaos is important. Thank you. Since this Napa fire, this is also the second time I’ve read about prison firefighters. It’s not something that I was aware of before, but in a place where huge fires are a seasonal thing, it makes sense. Your story shows how in chaos like this the lines are blurred and it wasn’t prisoners that you saw but tired and thirsty firefighters.

  7. Jaime says:

    The wildfires have been devastating to watch. We had fires in our area last year and who knows how long it’ll take for the land to recover. My thoughts go out to everyone affected by the fires.

  8. Barbara says:

    Incredible story. I feel so bad for all these folks who’ve lost everything. Hopefully, they can rebuild, or move. Although, there seems no safe place anymore. I believe God is really angry and we all need to pay attention.

  9. Diane says:

    How greatful I am for this man and all those like him. They rush in when every instinct must tell them to rush out. My son is a cop. He hasn’t dealt with this level of disaster yet. But if it happens, he will. Thank you.

  10. This is such an amazing post. My BIL is an officer and the stories he tells breaks our hearts. I don’t think we can give enough thanks for what these men and women do for us especially when everyone is running away from the danger and they’re running to it. We sometimes forget that they are human too. Bottom line is I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you do!!

  11. Liz Mays says:

    I’m glad there are people committed to helping out in such awful situations. I can see how it’s sometimes scary and other times just frustrating.There’s a lot we take for granted and it’s hard to imagine what life is like without basic necessities.

  12. Tammy says:

    THIS has been devastating to witness. To my heart, my soul and my spirit. I could not pray hard enough, could not send good thoughts fast enough, and could not write checks big enough. So much sadness…it overwhelms. And then, you look at people like this. ALL the people who come out of the woodwork to help with anything they can. There is a stillness of sorrow. I can still feel it. So appreciated this share, Carol.

  13. Laura Ehlers says:

    What a devastating disaster. And what an excellent piece. All too often people assume law enforcement to be the bad guy in every situation. Keep up the good work. There are those out there who understand.
    `wife of a retirement law enforcement officer.

  14. What an amazing post. My brother and sister-in-law live in Napa and were packed up and ready to go for days. Fortunately, they were spared. I can’t even imagine the devastation in Santa Rosa. So incredibly scary and glad it’s out for now.

  15. Pam says:

    I have friends who had their homes burned to the ground in these fires. It’s absolutely devastating.

  16. Meagan says:

    Fire is so terrible. We had a house fire this month and it was horrible!

  17. This definitely makes you wonder about how much we take for granted every single day. I thank you for responding and helping out. My heart goes out to those who were affected.

  18. That’s really heartbreaking. I can imagine how it was like, anyone would feel helpless. You’re amazing for doing your part and more. These people deserve all the help that we can give them.

  19. brianne says:

    Wow! It’s just beyond crazy to see what is going on in California. It’s really heartbreaking and I am praying for all those affected!

  20. Joyce brewer says:

    Nothing compares to the dedication of first responders. When we all flee, they run to help. It’s unimagineable.

  21. Crystal says:

    My nephew lives in near Santa Rosa. His school was evacuated and he went to stay at a friend’s parents’ house during the horrible fires. It was scary to see on TV, but I can’t imagine what it was like to see it up close.

  22. Heather says:

    The number of people who lost their homes, or worse their lives, from this fire is so heartbreaking. Thankful for the first responders who did everything they could to prevent even more loss.

  23. Sara Welch says:

    I can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been for him as people looked at him to help them. What a helpless and very heavy situation. What an amazing man.

  24. Annemarie LeBlanc says:

    This was so hearbreaking to watch on the news. I know the first responders did the best they could but forces of nature can be so overpowering. I hope and pray that the families who lost their homes will be able to get back on their feet the soonest. I will help in whatever way i can.

  25. Our Family World says:

    Such a horrible tragedy. I have so much respect to the firefighters, the police, the sheriff’s department the EMT and other volunteers who risked their own lives to help end this fire. If there is anything we can do to help the families who lost their homes and loved ones, we will be more than willing to extend assistance.

  26. Klaudia says:

    Oh my god, all these poor people losing everything. All these disasters we get to see make me feel speechless. We usually get lots of forest fires almost every year. And too often there are companies (or even the government) behind, setting areas on fire to “create” cheap building ground, no matter the consequences.

  27. Herlina Kwee says:

    Sending prayers to all those who are affected by the fire. May they have the strength and grace as they are rebuilding their lives. Thank you for all that responded and helped in the wake of the disaster. It is noticed in the grand scheme of things.A small drop in the water can cause ripple in the entire pond.

  28. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt personal experience. All these bizarre natural disasters (or not so natural, if they figure it out) are alarming and horrific. I survived a fire that burned down the house in which my young family had an apartment on the second floor, back in 1985. I know from that firsthand experience just how much fear and panic occur, followed afterward by the immense sense of loss and hopelessness — yet gratitude if you and your loved ones are among those who survived.

  29. Kiwi says:

    These wildfires are horrible. Its still going on and I am happy there is some efforts being made to help and i know many of this info is not being broadcasted all over the news.

  30. Tony says:

    One coast on fire, one coast under water. Thank God for those who risk themselves to bring safety and peace to other people.

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