‘The Thing That Saved Our Town’: A Firefighter Describes Friday’s Fire in Garberville

Foam covers the area like snow.

The early morning sun on Friday revealed foam covering the former food bank like snow while firefighters finished mopping up. [Photo by Tim Tietz]

Just before 3:30 a.m. Friday, for reasons still under investigation, a fire began burning in an inhabited RV parked on Locust Street in Garberville. The fire spread from the RV to buildings belonging to the nearby Presbyterian Church. According to Lt. Ken Swithenbank of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, “Witnesses described [how a] propane tank erupted and shot flames several feet from the motorhome into the wall of the church….like a blow torch.”

Church fire

Towers of fire.[Photo by Emily Hobelmann]

Diana Totten from Briceland Fire described arriving at the fire when there were only a couple of engines on scene. Seeing the flames chewing into the church, she said she “assumed that the entire block would be lost.” This included historic buildings like the Eel River Cafe and the old Bank of America. Totten, whose parents met when her mother was waitressing at the Cafe’ in the early 1950’s, said she was very worried.

Flames leap nearly as high as the church spire.

Flames leap nearly as high as the church spire. [Detail from a photo by John Perricone]

But, seeing the flames spreading, Cal Fire Captain Tran Beyea (see a video interview with him below) had made the decision to figuratively “push the big red button,” explained Totten. He requested a large amount of assistance immediately. “The thing that saved our town….was [Beyea] called for a lot of resources quickly. Having that amount of engines and firefighters show up that quickly meant we didn’t lose more buildings.”

Burned buildings after the fire in Garberville

The block containing historic Garberville buildings such as the Eel River Cafe and the former Bank of America could have burned to the ground if there hadn’t been such a large number of firefighters and their engines responding, according to Diana Totten. 
[Photo from drone was taken by Mikal Jakubal]

In the end, five engines from Cal Fire, two engines from Garberville, two engines from Redway, one engine from Briceland, one engine from Miranda, one truck from Fortuna and one Humboldt County Fire Air Refill trailer housed at Blue Lake showed up.

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.”

The stained glass windows in the Sanctuary glow in Friday morning's sunlight.

The stained glass windows in the Sanctuary glow in Friday morning’s sunlight. They survived the fire. [Photo by Ken Swithenbank]

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.”

As firefighters entered to the structure through the front doors to the left of what can be seen in this photo, huge flames were burning the back of the building. [Photo by Angel Larson]

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.

melted chandelier

A chandelier in the sanctuary melted sending long streamers of plastic pouring down in front of the beautiful redwood paneling. [Photo by Ken Swithenbank]

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,

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.

Fire destroyed the food pantry.

Fire destroyed the food pantry and the martial arts studio. [Photo by Ken Swithenbank.]

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.

The Sanctuary’s cross remains almost untouched beside a charred area where fire crept in. [Photo by Ken Swithenbank]

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.”

Presbyterian church after the fire.

By Saturday, the burned frame of the RV where the Friday morning fire originated was gone. [Photo by Kent Scown]

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.

The shadow of the cross covers the unburned sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church.

The shadow of the cross covers the unburned sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church in this aerial view seen Friday.
[Photo from drone was taken by Mikal Jakubal]

Earlier Chapter:  Motorhome on Fire in Garberville, Spreading to Presbyterian Church




  • Seems like Goobsterdam has gotten SO crazy and packed with folk! An intelligent idea would be not allowing persons to live permanently in the streets of your little settlement in vehicles. What will burn down next?

    Thanks to the firemen who risked their safety to fight this blaze. Once again we are proud to know you! Everyone, it’s summer! Please take some care not to burn towns, forests, and wildlife!

    Do try to live in peace. Be safe. Please, no camping on the roads around Redway!

    • It’s gotten way worse since ol’ Coffee Jim passed away…..he helped to “regulate” as he got his name The Regulator. Who might fill his shoes? Or has it just progressed out of that good ol’ days phase of keeping the streets of G-ville downsized.

  • Or just put the orange plastic fence all the way around Goobsterdam.

    Garberville is mainly just an attractive nuisance anyway.

    • Pleae go away. I love garberville. If you dont then keep your mouth shut. We actually believe in community in a real way so please stay out of our town and shut your piehole about it.
      Rude to residents and parishoners.

      • Taurus Ballzhoff

        You don’t believe in community. You believe in “love it or leave”, the kind of paranoid provincialism and isolationism that is killing your hospital AND your town. It’s OK, Willits is just down the road. Watch it grow and evolve… THAT’s a community!

        Just keep on selling beer and potato chips, $10 sandwiches and coffee to everybody with some cash to spend. Invest nothing in the future, build nothing new, and invest nothing in infrastructure, law enforcement, schools, hospital and housing. Keep sticking your head in the sand. That will work.
        Redway is more progressive… The Hoopa have better healthcare..

        “Goobsterdam, love it or leave. Oh, don’t forget to drop some cash first!”

        Oh, BTW, nice crop of street crazies this year! Later, come the trimsients! Can’t wait.

        Sorry to hear about the fire, started by street camping, that almost burned down the Presbys’ church. Hope it was insured…

        Try getting some brains and acting responsibly, Garberville! Quit smoking that dope! Jeeze!

  • Thinking allowed

    A nicely written and illustrated article.

    • Reads like a novel. Shouldn’t give the supervisors to much credit, but measure Z saved the day
      The view from the drone, nice. Buildings so close, could of been much worse. Glad no one was hurt..

  • Excellent recap of a bad fire. Good work by all those firefighters. They did save a village.

  • What happened with the guy that said “this whole town was going to burn”? Wasn’t someone arrested?

    • The report over the scanner that night was that someone had been arrested. But Lt. Swithenbank said Friday that though people had been interviewed no arrests had been made at that time.

  • An excellent job fire fighting by Diana and the whole team. She is such an incredible asset to our community. Also this is an in depth and very well written article Kym, Thank you.

  • Incredible story. Such a gathering of fire responder agencies working together – thank you to all for your service to this and your respective communities. And to the Humboldt community at large for passing measure Z.

  • FYI: The propane tank wasn’t exploding… it was ‘venting’ due to the increased pressure in the vehicle.

    If it had exploded… most of Garberville would be toast… as would the people filming the video.

    • Penguinlookinmofo

      Mist of Garberville would be toast? Be quiet ignorant one. A pair of 7 gallon standard rv tanks arent exactly a nuclear explosion buddy

  • Sad to admit but the best thing for the Town of Garbervile would have been to burn to the ground.

    • Oh come on. Really?

    • You shut it too, thats an idiotic statement. Lets see how you feel if i say the best thing would be for your neighorhood and family to burn to the ground. Howz that feel????
      Watch out, karmas a real thing, and wishing for families to be burnt to the ground could come back on you.
      People live in town, its not just stores, duh. Move away if you feel that way. Were you the one who started this fire? Your comments make me wonder

  • Speaking of measure Z, (and the county using it to back fill their normal responsibilities) From the airial photos it looks like they paved the street the church is on. was that a priority for the county?! all the roads going in to town are shot. A rough surface shouldn’t hurt any one back there, you can’t, and shouldn’t go faster than about 10 MPH on that street.

  • So you know.

    Diana Totten has saved other lives before. Diana Totten is an amazing, beautiful, loving, caring human being who has been awarded accolades and honors many times. Because she deserves them, because she is always there, she is always working to do good. Because, she truly cares. And she proves it time and time again.

    But. To counter the Mike Pence’s and Donald Trump’s of the world, I am going to stick my neck out and maybe even hurt Diana and say here that Diana is transgender. And it doesn’t fn matter to me, because she is beautiful and smart, and good and one of the very best of us. She cares about others. And she loves others and is willing to risk her life for them. And she is by every and all definitions an outstanding human being. (Ask anyone who knows her.) And I do know her, and I admire and respect her very much. And I would be delighted to have her save me in a fire, or on the side of a creek after 3 days in the wilderness.

    These are strange times we live in and we all must choose to resist the stupid. Mike Pence would put Diana Totten against a wall. And kill her. As an abomination according to his code.

    That is what we all face. I am with Diana. I love Diana. Resist the stupid. Resist the ignorant. Help save our Mother Earth. Diana is trying. Her best. And we should all be grateful. We are all fortunate to have her as our friend.

    • I love Diana too, even though I don’t know her personally. I watched her TED talk where she discusses many things, including being true to herself and becoming the amazing woman she always felt she was. Integrity, honesty and guts. I’m not one to get all weak knee’d about celebrities or other famous folks, but when I saw Diana in the grocery store one day, I was in AWE…”there she is!!”, I thought, and I had to say something to her, I had to let her know that she is my hero, and her response was humble and grounded. If I was in trouble and needed help, I’d thank God to see Diana come to my aid. On behalf of the many people and animals she has helped out: THANK YOU DIANA!! You open my heart and restore my faith in the power of selfless goodness, you inspire me to be a better person. She is the embodiment of courage and love and light. To say she is an asset to our community is an understatement….woman of the year, every year. Her “best” is AWESOME!!!

  • Good save firefighters!

    I could see that aerial photo with the cross shadow going viral. I’m not religious at all, but it’s a great shot, and if I was a believer that would just warm my heart.

  • Can you please comment on what happened to the people who lost their home in the fire Kym? Are they injured? Did they escape the fire? Where were they from, etc?

    • I don’t have much officially. Reportedly there were either two or three people living in the RV. Witnesses tell me there was loud arguing just before the fire. At least one of the people was seen after the fire. No one appeared to be injured. I don’t know where they are currently.

      I was told officially that no one had been injured in the fire.

  • 8th-gen-fam Really? “It’s sad for you to admit but it would be better if town had burned down.” And it would be so good if everyones livelyhoods were destroyed. And a few lives here and there (you know who) wouldn’t matter too much. Garberville would be scorched earth and boy would that be great! What kind of a mind says something like that? Not brave enough to say your name but ready to destroy all the great things about our town….mainly the community. Say your name or shut the fuck up….sorry people.

    • Veterans friend

      Do not apologize for saying what many are thinking💖

    • Or, instead of wishing for the whole burg to go up in smoke, do something about what you don’t like about Garberville. Volunteer with a group you think improves our quality of life. Invest in change. It’s easier to be lazy and complain, but it’s more satisfying to make a positive difference.

  • I live in Garberville but happen to be out of town during this tragic time. Thank you Bunny for calling 8th Gen on cowardliness and callousness.
    I too am wondering about the occupants of the RV ? Have they vanished into the woods, been questioned, ??? Can they be held responsible in any way? It is a wake up call for the RV situation to be addressed. There are places for them to pull into legally, which cost money and at this time of year is of limited time. And I get it our town is not alone in this problem. California & America face grave problems now that foresee no immediate relief of the situation but we need to develop some ways to protect ourselves also.
    Diana is an amazing person and dedicated to teaching other individuals to carry on in her tradition, we are lucky to have such a person in out community along with every other fireperson out that night selflessly helping us all.

  • Penguinlookinmofo

    So the insurance,of this motor home owner should be covering all damage and fire fighting costs. This is another reason not to have big rvs parked in our residential neighborhoods, hope,ots not some lost soul hippy rv with no insurance,,time to rethink the travelers and local trim scene hangouts in town

  • Paganism huh? No place for that in any “church.” God’s will be done.

  • The RV was the cause of all the damage. Where’s the arrest of the owners and charges against them? Not a mention. Proximity of the RV should never have been allowed. How foolish a decision by the Church (?) and now the consequences. No where in Garberville should a rv be allowed unless a specific safe distance from flameble structures. Garberville needs a new ordinance to prevent this foolish event to occur again.

    • Come on. This is a rare occurrence. The Church, if they knew and approved the RV parking there, likely acted with compassion for the occupants of the RV. (It’s a county road though, and the church has no real power over the area adjacent to their facility). We don’t need legislation for every terrible thing that happens.

      • “Crime Stopper” McGruff is gonna regulate existence..reminds me of an old quote re. liberty vs safety.

  • That is an excellent account of what our local firefighters endure to save our communities! I learned much from this story.
    Thank you Diana, ALL the firefighters and Kym, for educating me/ WE WHO CAN STAY SAFE AND DONATE TO OUR VFD’s.
    Dig deep people. Many need your help NOW!

  • ” A pair of 7 gallon standard rv tanks arent exactly a nuclear explosion buddy”

    I suspect that you’ve never seen one ‘blow’.
    Read about ‘BLEVE’ (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion).
    Modern propane tanks vent… which is a good thing.

    Watch this… a single 20 lb Propane Tank.

    And here’s a bigger one.

  • Kym, I know you’ve probably posted already, but where can donations be sent? I was married in that church on a beautiful, hot July day 37 years ago!

    I remember going to Sunday school before the “”new” church was built. It was a classic white church with a steeple and bell that was pulled on a rope to ring on Sundays.

    Garberville is a beautiful place and I sincerely hope that things will change for the better and we can have the kind of community where people want to live and work.

    Thanks to all the folks who care and “walk the walk”.

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