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Quick roadside fire response avoids big problem

Fire next to large wood lot put out fast
Quick roadside fire response avoids big problem
A roadside fire broke out on Highway 12 on July 28. First responders were on the scene and quickly extinguished it.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Jay Gamel

A crowd of people watched a drama unfold about 100 yards north of the Glen Ellen stoplight on Highway 12 early on the balmy afternoon of July 28. While there’s no official determination of the cause yet, the roadside fire likely was ignited by a passing automobile, according to fire personnel on the scene.

It was a busy scene. A fire truck and bulldozer arrived from CAL FIRE’s station a quarter-mile south down Highway 12 toward the city of Sonoma. Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD) had three engines, one medic unit, two water tenders, a battalion chief, and a fire marshal on scene, according to SVFD Fire Chief Steve Akre. Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said one Kenwood engine was sent.

PG& E crews working in the area joined in, and at least one engine from Santa Rosa may have been on site, but that has not been confirmed.

“The aircraft order was dispatched and canceled,” Akre added. He said that CAL FIRE has investigatory authority, since the fire happened in a designated State Responsibility Area.

Lest you think this was overkill, it was where the fire broke out that set off multiple alarms.

The fire broke out on Highway 12 next to Edward (Jaime) Tellier’s extensive wood lot, which sports all kinds of wood: cords of chopped firewood, tree lengths, rough-cut timber, poles, and other types of timber. Tellier Timber has sold firewood and other timber products for many years from the property. Every firefighter in the valley knows exactly where it is, as do most residents in the vicinity. The wood is clearly visible from Dunbar Road and has been the subject of speculation since 2017’s devastating wildfire destroyed so many homes and buildings in the area.

Tellier was feeding his horses when he saw a ball of black smoke by the highway at about 1:30 p.m. He set off at a run, calling 911, only to be put on hold. “Not what I was expecting,” he said, but he was relieved to have as much help show up as fast as it did. “They got right on it,” Tellier said. “The CAL FIRE dozer ran over the fence,” leaving the fence flat and a tiny new entrance into the wood lot.

“We were standing here, ready, and jumped out the gate on a moment’s notice,” said Nils Derickson, a heavy fire equipment operator (HFEO) who has been with CAL FIRE for over 15 years. He made the new driveway.

“The fire was not related to (Tellier’s) property,” Derickson said. “The fire started next to the road; something from a vehicle, but we don’t know what.” With nowhere else to go, the fire spread quickly under the barbed wire fence and into Tellier’s lot.

Since the fire engines and crews assembled on Highway 12, thrutraffic was routed via Dunbar Road, backing up traffic for quite a ways in either direction.

The blaze was constrained to eight-tenths of an acre and was out by 4 p.m. No overnight watch was required, and the wind stayed mercifully calm all day, except for a brief coastal wind that rose to about 15 mph just after 3 p.m. and quickly died away, by 4 p.m. An 80-degree day didn’t hurt, either.

Fire departments and neighbors have been working to ameliorate the wood situation on Tellier’s property since 2017, though progress has been slow. According to Tellier, two fire departments, and a shy neighbor, PG& E is aware of the situation and has offered to help. An initial cleanup by a subcontractor in 2018 was cut short by the Camp Fire, which decimated the town of Paradise, the deadliest ever in California. The subcontractor has not returned to the job.

“Sonoma Valley FD along with Permit Sonoma and CAL FIRE all have been working on mitigation efforts related to the wood stored on the property,” Derickson concluded. Let’s see if this fire spurs more action.