Notes from the front
Firefighter stories and local love
By Jay Gamel
“It was kind of an eventful morning,” Kenwood volunteer fire fighter Joe Platt described his first day fighting the Glass Fire last month. The understatement was fitting for the usually taciturn defenders who staff Kenwood’s fire equipment 24/7, standing watch against all kinds of harm.
Platt, a volunteer who is president of the Kenwood Firefighter’s Association, arrived at the fire house on Sunday evening, Sept. 27, after hearing that a raging wildfire was barreling southwards from Angwin in Napa County, through Calistoga and over the Mayacamas Mountains toward Oakmont and Sonoma Valley, a virtual repeat of 2017’s deadly mix of high winds and mountainous wildfire.
The first mutual aid request to Kenwood was for a water tender to supply units defending property along St. Helena Road in the middle of heavily forested mountain territory. Capt. Tony Ghisla and Engineer Bob Molesworth took the tender to the temporary command center at the Calistoga Shopping Center on Highway 12 about 5 p.m. and then headed up the mountains via St. Helena Road.
“We were up and down that road all night,” Ghisla, a 30-year veteran, said. “That fire covered five acres when we got to the command center, but it was burning over 50 acres when we got up there.” They took their first position along with other units on Spring Mountain Road, protecting homes.
“There was no one else up there but us, so we could get around pretty good,” Ghisla commented on driving heavy equipment on the narrow, twisty roads that serve the area.” He credits Molesworth with being “a really good driver. He got us through tight spots while we were doing a lot of backburning along St. Helena Road to keep the fire from jumping the road. By then there were guys from all over the place, from Tomales in the West County and further out.” Their job was to supply other engines with water, making at least 10 round trips that night. Eventually, everyone was ordered off the mountain. “We kept hearing on the radio that the fire was down to Los Alamos and was threatening to cross the road (to Oakmont),” Ghisla said. Ghisla and Molesworth returned to St. Helena Road for a few hours the next day, but eventually had to quit the mountain. Platt and Engineer (driver) Japen Soto and John Bragg took the Type 3 engine, a four-wheel drive designed for fighting wildfires, up to the same general area, responding to a call for five more engines.
“We met with the Strike Team Leader,” Platt said. “Then we spent the next 36 hours up there, primarily tasked with structure defense.”
“One of the biggest challenges we had was the way the fire was coming at us, through dense trees and brush that canopied over us,” Platt said. “As frustrating as is for a firefighter to create a buffer for the homeowner, it felt a little bit futile … you hoped somehow it could be stopped, but even after doing the best we could to prep a lot of these homes, it was probably going to be … difficult.” Wildfire work schedules call for 36 hours on followed by 24 hours off. During their shifts, crews spent a lot of time just keeping the roads clear, cutting up fallen trees and pushing the debris off the road.
A sheriff pulled up and asked Platt’s crew to help homeowners desperately trying to save their houses. “A pump or generator they were using burned out,” Platt said, “so we went. We were able to save four homes that were being threatened. That was pretty cool.”
Early on Sept. 29, they were working on the Napa County side of Tarwater Road when they were ordered off the mountain again when the winds started picking up. On the way down, they encountered two civilians walking down the road.
“We picked them up,” Platt said. “One had a head injury and Japen began triage in the back of the engine.” Soto is an EMT and, after assessing the injury, began full treatment. Eventually, the refugees were taken to the base camp at Calistoga Road and Highway 12 where an ambulance was waiting for the injured walker.
After Tuesday, most of Kenwood FPD’s work was directed at fires along Highway 12 from Los Alamos to Pythian Road that were threatening Oakmont and the outskirts of Kenwood.
Long time Kenwood volunteer Matt Clawson, born and raised in that stretch of Highway 12 near Melita Road, was patrolling between Adobe Canyon Road and Oakmont Drive with Jason Kunde. “We were putting out spot fires in a kind of bump and run,” Clawson said.“ The fire was heading for the highway by the children’s home (at Pythian), coming along a drainage ditch from the mountain,” Clawson said. “Until the fire overwhelmed us at Highway 12 and Silver Shoon Ranch. By then, Santa Rosa engines were heading toward Kenwood.”
Clawson said what everyone in the fire district knows: “We need more volunteers.” Assistant Administrative Chief Ben Gulson used to train the district’s volunteers and urges anyone who can make the time for the rigorous training to step forward and join the program. While more professionals are being hired, they cannot replace the core cadre of volunteers who make the job possible.
Platt called out community members who stepped up.
“Palooza supported us every day with lunches and food. Others brought in meals ready to go. Joe and Denise Benguerel were instrumental in managing the feeding of all the firefighters coming in and out of the station,” he said. “And it is worth noting the Fire Explorers — Tyler Bellach and Ethan Platt — who spent a tremendous amount of time at the station, keeping it clean and helping with the feeding. There was an incredible show of support from everyone.”
A brief presentation ceremony at St. Anne’s Crossing Winery in Kenwood on Thursday, Nov. 5, barely captured the importance of the occasion, with parent Nakedwines. com CEO Nick Devlin on hand to donate $127,310 to the Kenwood Firefighter’s Association, money raised through the sales of a special, blended wine from the 2017 vintage.
“It started back in 2017,” Devlin said later. “Our winery was evacuated for 13 days and we were very fortunate. We felt a debt to all the firefighters out there working so hard. People lost jobs and we wondered what we could do to help.”
The first round of crowd funded donations raised over $800,000 that was given to organizations in Napa and Sonoma. The money helped restore a school for autistic children, and provided food, supplies and cash assistance to fire victims.
This year’s money went directly to Kenwood firefighters and will be used to overhaul the district’s 20-year-old water tender, which just recently provided tremendous support fighting the Glass Fire.
“In 2018 we decided to support Kenwood Volunteer Firefighters Association with our 2017 vintage of Cellar Cru American Red Blend.” Over 63,000 bottles of that wine were sold for $10.99 a bottle, Devlin said, with $2 of each sale going to the donation. “The 2019 bottling will raise more money,” Devlin ventured.