John Deaver has seen fire devastation before. He worked for the forest service for five years as part of a 20-person hand crew that traveled to battle fires before joining the fire department in Bothell.
So when he and two others from Bothell (Hugh Moag and Cody Barwell) were mobilized to California, it was no surprise to see the impact wildland fires had. But he’d never been in wine country fighting fires before, nor had he seen a fire sweep through grapes lined up through a valley — a crop that can take up to three years to produce viable fruit.
Acres of vineyards were burned, wineries leveled. He estimated that he personally saw what remained of more than 50 homes that were burned to the ground. He lost count at one point.
“The main fire had already burned through,” Deaver said, about their time spent in California.
A group of mobilized King County firefighters returned home on Nov. 5 after spending nine days aiding a battle against wildland fires in Sonoma County, California. Deaver was one of 19 in the Wildland Engine Strike Team.
They caravanned 746-miles south (about 1,492 miles round trip) — after the state of California put a call out for needed fire resources. The state of California also foots the bill for the help.
The King County firefighters were assigned to the Kincade fire, a vegetation fire that started on Oct. 23, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection. It burned through nearly 78,000 acres and lasted 13 days.
More than 370 structures were destroyed, including many wineries that the area is known for. The Sonoma County website boasted that more than 400 wineries called the area home, including many small, family-run businesses.
The strike team included three (including Deaver) from the Bothell Fire Department. Others who traveled with them were from Eastside Fire and Rescue as well as the Duvall, Seattle and Valley Regional fire departments.
The responders were red-card certified, meaning they were prepared to handle the challenges that come along with wildland blazes, as their fire seasons continue to extend in Washington state and other states coastside.
By the time they reached their destination, the fire had already made some big pushes. However, officials had concerns over weather predictions of strong winds during the last days of October. The kind of winds that can cause fires to quickly spread and others to spark.
“The fire at that time was only 50 percent contained,” Deaver said. “We were really nervous about that, to have another fire that would start and devastated resources. We were stretched so thin at that time we were all prepared for it.”
But the wind event never happened. And the strike team primarily patrolled areas already burned over, said Capt. Jordan Simmonds of Eastside Fire and Rescue. They monitored areas near Briggs Ranch Road off of Highway 128 and mopped up hot spots — logs and trees that hold heat for several days and weeks.
“If fires aren’t put out, it can respark if it gets into a patch of fuel (ignitable plants, trees, brush, and wood piles) it could start new fires and burn down homes nearby,” Simmonds said. “It’s a pretty common thing.”
These hot spots are sometimes smoking, some may have active flames. Usually firefighters are told to target the hot spots within 200 feet of any structure. For underground stumps, it’s a pattern of drenching these hot spots with water and using hand tools to break up earth.
“You have to dig them out. You can’t just put water on top of it, water doesn’t get deep enough,” Simmonds said. “Hot spots go down several feet…and take hours to dig out.”
When they weren’t out patrolling, team members spent the night at a base camp setup at county fairgrounds. There were about 42 beds per semi trailer, and more than 40 semi trailers where responders slept.
“It was a huge incident,” Deaver said “There were thousands of thousands of firefighters there.”
It was at this base camp where they held morning briefings and prepared the rigs. Then they’d be off for the day.
As they left their camp, people stood holding signs of gratitude. Thank you signs and signs that offered blessings on the firefighters. One couple holding signs on the corner lost everything, Deaver said. Their house. Their small farm. But there they stood. Others brought toiletries and even pizza.
This treatment was also reflected by a family the strike team encountered on their last day in California. Ranchers were attempting to locate their cattle and discovered the strike team was from Washington. They too came from the state, having lived in the Arlington and Lake Stevens area. To show the responders their gratitude, they invited them to dinner and took a group photo.
“It’s interesting,” Simmonds said. “You go down and see a lot of devastation…a lot of sad stories and also a lot of gratitude for us for being there. Even people that lost their homes were thankful that firefighters were able to salvage some of it and that we made the effort to do so.”
Unlike the more than 100 fires Deaver had been on before, he had never seen this.