After two weeks battling extreme winds and rolling walls of flame in Southern California, a group of Tracy firefighters have come home for Christmas.
The firefighters were part of a 22-member San Joaquin County Strike Team that headed south in the early morning hours of Dec. 5. They traveled with teams from Stockton, Lodi, Lathrop and Woodbridge, all of whom returned home around 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Battalion Chief Scott Arganbright said their mission was to join the forces battling the Thomas Fire in Ventura County and protect houses and other buildings. Their never-give-up efforts resulted in the survival of dozens of homes.
“They did 47 and 0 — 47 saves and no losses,” Arganbright said by telephone Tuesday night. “I told our guys, ‘You should be proud of yourselves. You did a great job.’”
On Arganbright’s team were Tracy Fire Capt. Eric Oliveri, Jared Bryant, John Bell and Carlos Hampton. He said the latter two saw plenty of fire before they returned to Tracy after a few days, replaced by firefighters Mark Myers and Larry Griffith.
“It was probably most erratic fire behavior I’ve ever seen in several years,” Arganbright said. “I’ve see pictures of stuff like this, and videos, but it was the first time I’ve ever been physically in 70 mph wind and fire in all directions.”
Each day, he said, they faced a new challenge as the wind kept gusting and the walls of fire at times rose 50 to 200 feet into the air, burning up and down canyons.
“Fire came all around us,” he said. “The only way to stop it was when it hit the ocean on Pacific Coast Highway. No way to stop it other than steer it in the right direction, but you couldn’t do that, just protect the structures in its path. Watching it coming — you see it coming, but you’re looking all around behind you. Spot fires coming up all around you.”
Their first order of business was to prepare each of the homes they were assigned to protect.
“Before the fire gets close to us, the guys were going around making sure everything is prepped,” he said. “Removing patio furniture cushions, shrubbery, umbrellas, pool covers … anything a hot ember will land on and ignite.”
To try to save a house, firefighters with hoses positioned themselves at all four corners of the building to catch the fire from different directions.
“High winds fed the embers, and we wanted to make sure we had a defendable space and a safe area to put the apparatus so it didn’t burn up,” Arganbright added. “We knew everything around us was going to burn. Our focus was protecting the structures.”
Once, Arganbright said, the team he was with ran out of water. The firefighters quickly ran a line into the backyard pool and used that water to protect the house as the plants all around it fed the flames.
“Just as it came blowing through, hot embers are hitting you in the face and everything was sideways,” he said. “Big juniper bushes right next to the house (were burning).”
During another firefight, they were near an avocado orchard and knew those trees were unlikely to burn, which provided some protection for their engines. He said it was a safe spot to ride out the flames with the reassurance of a nearby water supply from neighborhood hydrants and swimming pools.
Throughout their two weeks in Southern California, the Tracy team and others from San Joaquin County worked 24-hour shifts fighting fires in several areas.
Off the Pacific Coast Highway, they were sent to protect structures on Rincon Mountain. Arganbright said they spent the day preparing the area as the fire headed their way. That night, the winds kicked up to 70 mph, and the flames turned and raced directly toward the houses they were protecting.
“The guys were getting hit from all directions,” he said. “Everybody hunkered down and stayed with their assigned house, and as the fire blew through, we sat out three to four hours until everything burned out. … We didn’t lose one home.”
The strike team was particularly proud of saving the home of a Santa Barbara firefighter who had died exactly a year ago the day they were there. Arganbright said the fire chief showed them the firefighter’s house earlier in the day and a Lodi engine team kept it safe as everything around it burned.
When they were assigned to the San Ysidro Ranch resort in Montecito, they could see huge plume of smoke on the horizon as they drove in. Arganbright said they spent three days planning how to defend the ranch — a historic property on 500 acres with 42 cottages in the hills of Montecito. As the fire spread rapidly last Saturday, in winds that reached 68 to 70 mph, the flames threatened the resort, but they fought them back and once again didn’t lose a single building.
He said the team members had received emails and phone calls of thanks from people whose homes they protected.
“They were happy Tracy Fire saved their home,” he said. “That’s what made the whole trip. Go down there and have that type of impact. Altogether, (we) had 47 saves while we were down there. Even if it’s one save, it’s worth a trip down there.”
Although Arganbright’s team made it back for Christmas, other Tracy firefighters remain down south.
Firefighters Brandon Benson and Justin Cerro, who were sent to Southern California a few days after the first strike team, are still assigned to the Thomas Fire. Capt. Tom Baldocchi and Ruben Cortinas had been fighting the Lilac Fire that destroyed more than 150 homes in San Diego, but now they too are working on the Thomas Fire — which as of Thursday had blackened more than 272,000 acres and was 60 percent containted.
Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at email@example.com or 830-4225.