THE FIRST 24 HOURS
1130 Oct 8
For me, it was a typical Fall Sunday in America; highlighted by a one-year old’s birthday party and a big Packer win over the Cowboys. My arrival at home didn’t come until after 10 o’clock, in this case maybe fortunately, and the nightly peek at my work emails even later than that. On a typical Sunday night, my inbox might have some evening updates on fires or new reports of small, irrelevant starts. In this case, by 1130pm I already had twelve IPN emails and loads of tweets warning of the multiple starts. I was alarmed to see troubling terms like “high winds”, “evacuations”, and even “structure involvement” were being used for fires across multiple Northern California counties. I immediately flashed back to Gatlinburg TN, where lives and property were tragically lost in the middle of the night less than a year ago. I sprung into action, turning on fire radio and attempting to figure out exactly where all this activity fell on our map. For the first time in my five years with RedZone, I was headed to the office in the middle of the night to get a headstart on what was surely going to be a long couple days ahead dealing with the Napa Sonoma Fires.
0400 Oct 9
Not long after my colleague and I arrived, we knew what were hearing was really bad news. By 4 am we had about a dozen new large wildfire starts on our radar. Winds howling north of 50 mph were sending extreme fire behavior through the dry grass and oak terrain of several northern counties. Butte had fires. Clearlake had a fire. Mendocino had fire. Sonoma had multiple fires. Napa was on fire. What’s worse, is, not only is it just wildfire chaos but it’s in the middle of the night. Due to strained resources and limited air reinforcements, fire crews focused all their energy on life-saving and evacuation activities rather than attempt any form of structure protection. As the morning wore on, the true impact to life and property was apparent as radio traffic was overwhelmed with calls of residents entrapped and flooded with eerily streamlined reports of structures ablaze. It was one of the worst things I’ve witnessed unfold, as I knew in my heart not everyone would get out alive.
1800 Oct 9
We spent a good part of late summer watching three major hurricanes devastate areas like Houston, Key West, and Puerto Rico. Something about this just seemed worse, probably the lack of warning and widespread destruction. By the time most of the country woke up, the Tubbs and Atlas Fires had already force-evacuated thousands leaving destroyed homes and commercial properties in its wake. In Santa Rosa, the fire actually crossed the 101 Highway through town. In Napa, a number of iconic wineries and high dollar properties were already devastated by the firestorm. What we saw was the result of a recipe for disaster. High winds with dry fuels and low RH; despite last winter’s drought-relieving rains, the excess fine fuels were ripe for the taking. The multiple starts knocked out cell towers and power across the area. Even as the day wore on and more and more resources arrived, all they could do was focus on evacuations, life-saving, and structure protection as the fires continued to burn uncontrolled.