Having just returned to his station after a brutal, 20-plus-hour shift spent battling the Sulfur Fire in Lake County, Williams Fire Chief Jeff Gilbert picked up the phone in his office and said that the fires raging across the north state were the worst he had ever seen.
“I would just call this mass conflagration. I don’t think anybody has ever seen anything like this,” Gilbert said last Tuesday. “The saddest thing is, I’m sure some people didn’t make it out.”
A week later, fifteen major wildfires are still burning across California in what Gov. Jerry Brown is calling “one of the greatest tragedies that California has ever faced.” As of Monday afternoon, the death toll from Northern California’s four fire “complexes” sat at 41. Between the four-fire Central LNU Complex burning in Napa and Sonoma counties, the Southern LNU Complex in Napa and Solano counties, the two-fire Mendocino-Lake Complex in Lake and Mendocino Counties, and the three-fire Wind Complex in Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties, nearly 200,000 acres have been burned, destroying more than 5,000 structures in the process.
In the early part of last week, firefighters found themselves in a pitched battle, as the flames were stoked by strong north winds and warm, dry conditions. In some cases, there wasn’t much that could be done.
“What I saw on the lake shore of the Clearlake area… There was nothing you can do about it,” Gilbert said.
In the past few days, firefighters have finally started to get a hold on the fires, and it looks as if they will get a helping hand from Mother Nature, as rain and cooler temperatures are in the forecast for this week. Already, the Wind Complex is 96 percent contained, and all evacuation warnings have been lifted. The Southern LNU Complex is 68 percent contained, and CAL FIRE expects to have the four fires that compose the Central LNU Complex fully contained by Friday. Although the Mendocino-Lake Complex is at about 50 percent containment, CAL FIRE anticipates it won’t be fully contained until Nov. 1.
Strike teams and individuals from fire departments throughout Colusa County are among the roughly 11,000 firefighters working to halt the advance of the Northern California blazes over the week. Gilbert and a team of his firefighters, along with a firefighters from Maxwell Fire Department, were committed to the Sulfur Fire at 11 PM on Sunday night. They fought the fire all the way through Monday with no relief, and worked there until 8 AM on Tuesday morning.
“Lake County doesn’t need this any more,” Gilbert said, referring to the Valley Fire that burned more than 75,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes and hundreds of other structures in 2015. “Nobody needs this, and it’s just sad.”
Gilbert, who is the Office of Emergency Services (OES) Coordinator for the county’s fire departments, said that the Colusa City Fire Department was diverted to the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa and Solano Counties as a single resource. He also said that the Sacramento River Fire Protection District sent an OES water tender out to Butte County to assist with the LaPorte Fire.
It’s a brotherhood: CCRFC comes through for fellow ruggers in Sonoma County
While they might take the pitch looking to knock the snot out of one another on Saturdays, the individuals and teams that make up the Northern California Rugby Football Union have each others’ backs, as the Colusa County Rugby Football Club showed this week.
When they heard about the fires that were ravaging Sonoma and Napa Counties, Colusa County’s men in green jumped into action. In the course of a couple of days, various members of the Colusa County Rugby Football Club gathered and made donations, bought much needed items for those displaced and left homeless by the infernos, loaded up their team trailer and headed down to Sonoma County on Friday.
“I can’t even image what it’s like to go from having a house and everything you need, to literally having nothing – to sleeping on a cot,” said Cody Beckley, CCRFC president.
“The rugby community is a brotherhood, and there are a number of guys down there who played with Colusa County for a couple of years, as well as guys we play against, who have been adversely affected by this” said CCRFC’s Paul Saninelli. “We had one of our favorite referees who lost his house – everything. We want to help them. It’s like a family – it’s not just on Saturdays.”
Whether it was smoke masks or flashlights, water bottles or a gas generator with a handful of phone chargers, the Colusa Rugby team made an effort to find out what was most desperately needed, and then they delivered.
“It’s pandemonium. Unless you have a direct connection down there and you can talk to people who are on the ground… It’s just really hard,” said Santinelli. “I think everyone is running around at 70 mph, trying to figure out how they can do their part Fortunately for us, Santa Rosa and Petaluma have as vibrant a rugby community as we do, that we could be on the ground with and ask them what they need…”
While the rugby team is no longer taking donations, Santinelli said that he had been directing people to the Williams Fire Department, which was also taking donations to help out those impacted by the fires in Northern California. ■