‘The Thing That Saved Our Town’: A Firefighter Describes Friday’s Fire in Garberville
Below, video from Friday morning shows explosions from the RV accelerating the fire while a nearby woman cries in the background.
Video of the fire by Angel Larson
Beyea assigned Totten command of the area containing the front of the Presbyterian Church which faces Maple Lane.
Totten said her team “made the decision to enter the [front] door of the church…We went in to stop the fire from spreading into the sanctuary.” Totten noted that her team with crew members of Briceland, Miranda, and Redway Fire were very aware of the history of the building. She had close ties to the church as did other crew members. One crew member had a black belt from Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do, a martial arts group, that meets and stores its equipment in one of the Church buildings. Totten’s family had attended services there. “My parents got married in the Presbyterian Church in the Fifties though it has changed since then,” she said. “I remember my grandmother going there every Sunday with her little white gloves on.”
Even more, Totten explained, the crews were touched by the building’s sacred connection. “We come from all kinds of religious backgrounds from paganism on,” she explained. “[But] this is a church and [inside there were] sacred items…It didn’t matter whether if it was a Catholic Church or a Buddist Temple, we would have done the same thing.”
A fire hydrant was close by and “worked perfectly.” The crews attached a large 2 1/2 inch hose. “It was able to put a lot of water on the fire quickly,” she said, “which kept flames from spreading to the offices and the preschool.”
As the firefighters entered the large front doors, smoke and heat draped thickly around them. “It is dark outside and dark inside…It is well over 1000 degrees above us,” Totten said. “The smoke is about four feet off the floor…We’re trying to find the fire.”
As they open the door to the Sanctuary after they cross the entrance way, thick plate glass from a partition shatters. “Glass is falling down,” Totten said. “A piece fell and cut our fire hose.” Water from the cut hose sprayed the extremely hot glass and shattered it. “We had to pull back,” she said quietly.
Soon though some of the local team entered the Sanctuary clearing away the glass so the team could fight the fire. The crew returned with their hoses and tools. Inside the building, it is surprisingly loud. Totten said, “There is a lot of snapping and popping.”
Firefighters get exhausted from the smoke, the heat, the strenuous work and the stress. “15 minutes ago you were sound asleep in bed now you are in a burning building with things falling on you out of the sky,” explained Totten. Fortunately, the Air Refill trailer brought from Blue Lake allowed firefighters to quickly change out tanks which only last a little over a half hour. And, having a number of firefighters on the scene allowed some to rest while others fought the blaze which meant that fresh crew members were able to rotate in frequently. “When you are exhausted,” she said, “you need someone else to pick up the nozzle and keep on.”
The crew members pushed further through the smoke. “Inside of a burning building not only is wood burning, there is sheetrock burning, plastic burning, roofing material, food burning….,” Totten explained. “We can’t quite see where [the fire] is at. The smoke and heat build up.”
Normally, the crews would break a hole in the roof to allow for ventilation but the Sanctuary was mostly intact and the crews wanted to keep it that way. Totten said that a stained glass window on the east side of the window burned out from the fire leaving a hole which provided ventilation.The crew was able to keep the fire from making its way too far in the sanctuary. “We knocked the flame down that was inside the Sanctuary itself,” Totten said. “We did have to cut part of the beautiful redwood paneling.”
A church member whose father had helped build the Sanctuary was outside. She directed firefighters what to bring out if they could–tapestries, bibles, etc. And the crews brought in salvage covers for the piano, the organ, and the altar.
“It was a little bit of a miracle we were able to hold [the fire] there,” Totten said. “Everything was in our favor…There was no wind.”
Totten said that her crew was very touched that they were able to save the main part of the church. One of the reasons the fire was stopped before the sanctuary was lost, Totten said, was that every crew member had the clothing and breathing apparatus they needed. She explained, “One of the key ingredients for the success of this fire on our end is that…we all had the proper equipment which was all funded by Measure Z. It not only saved a historical building but maybe our lives.”
The equipment which includes special clothing is very expensive and the local firefighters have trouble purchasing it. “The volunteer departments have always been lacking in funding,” she explained.
According to this site, a complete firefighter outfit costs over $6000. “Most [volunteer] fire departments can barely pay their insurance,” Totten said. But Measure Z provided money to buy multiple sets of equipment for each crew. In addition, the firefighter’s air pack, Totten explained, was standardized across the crews making it less complicated for each tank to be refilled at the Air Refill trailer. “Now that all our SCBA [self-contained breathing apparatus] bottles are the same, it was really easy,” she said.
“Thank the supervisors and the community for giving us the things we need to protect us,” she said. “[Measure Z] actually did make a difference.”
When the sun rose over Garberville, the town had a huge hole in it–the church and its buildings had been used not only for religious services but as a preschool, a martial arts studio, a food bank, flea market, concert hall, and as an extreme weather shelter for the homeless among many other purposes.
Cal Fire Captain Tran Beyea speaks about the damage the morning of the fire. [Video by Bobby Kroeker]
The food bank and the Dragon Heart martial arts studio (this reporter’s former do jang) were a complete loss. According to Rosie Bosco who set up a fundraiser for the studio,
The church, while salvageable, requires much work and money to return to its former glory as one of the most acoustically beautiful and functionally useful buildings in SoHum. Lt. Swithenbank said in an interview Friday, “There is extensive damage. The [church] roof is fine just a little damage. A lot of windows broken out [but] it could have been a lot worse.”
Dragon Heart stored all their equipment (flags, targets, staffs, banners, sparring gear, mats, bags, kids’ games, cones, etc etc etc in a room off of the Fellowship Hall. The fire completely destroyed that part of the building, leaving nothing but a pile of sodden ashes. We will need to replace all of it, as there is no insurance coverage for building contents.
According to Lt. Swithenbank on Friday, “The fire is suspicious but not deemed arson at this time. It is still under investigation. There are no suspects at this time.” If you have any information about the fire, please contact the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office at (707) 923-2761 or (707) 445-7251.
If you would like to help the Church, please call (707) 923-3259 or donate here.
If you would like to help the Food Pantry, call (707) 923-3295.
If you would like to help Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do, here is a fundraiser.Earlier Chapter: Motorhome on Fire in Garberville, Spreading to Presbyterian Church