Humboldt County Firefighters Return Home From the Fatal Camp Fire as a Local Search and Rescue Team Prepares to Look for Bodies

Strike team from Humboldt County

Strike Team Humboldt heading home yesterday. [Photo provided by Kent Hulbert]

Even as the firefighters begin to pull out of the Camp Fire which at over 151,000 acres is now about 70% contained, a search and rescue team from Humboldt County prepares to head in to look for human remains.

The small communities of rural Humboldt County have sent and continue to send people to deal with danger and darkness. Even as flames burned through Paradise on November 8, a strike team from Humboldt County gathered. By early on the morning of November 9, they were at the base camp in Butte County ready to stop the Camp Fire from destroying more towns.

Humboldt County Strike team getting briefed.

Humboldt County Strike team getting briefed in Butte County. [Photo from Strike Team Leader Kent Hulbert]

Arcata Fire DistrictBriceland Volunteer Fire Department, Miranda Volunteer Fire Department, Blue Lake Volunteer Fire Department and Humboldt Bay Fire crews make up the 5 department [Humboldt County] Strike Team,” Humboldt Bay Fire reported that first day. But there were other departments from the small communities of the Emerald Counties that stood side by side with firefighters from across the state protecting the homes and businesses that as yet untouched.

The team caravaning home. [Crop of a photo provided by Strike Team Leader Kent Hulbert]

Yesterday, the Humboldt Strike Team came home. They carry striking images they will never forget, they bring with them the good memories of camaraderie and a job well done, and they bear the burden of knowing from the dirt crusted under their nails and smoke stink in their hair the destruction wrought by the fire.

Kent Hulbert, the Strike Team leader, and Curt Watkins, Battalion Chief for the Arcata Fire District spoke about their experiences during their week and a half stationed on the deadliest and most destructive fire in modern California history.

The first thing both mentioned being impressed by was the sheer mass of people. Both spoke of the tremendous crowd still waiting to be sheltered that gathered in tents in the Chico Walmart Parking lot and the number of people coming from all over to put out the fire.

Then they contrasted that with the massive amount of people that are missing–still almost 700 as of this morning and the number of people, 79 at this time, that are known to be dead.

But they both wanted to mention the incredible assistance they saw being given, not just to the people who lost their homes but also for the personnel fighting the fires. “There was a group of massage therapists and chiropractors that came,” Hulbert said. These provided massage and adjustments to firefighters every day at the base camp, he explained.

“That kind of support was just amazing,” Watkins agreed.

The two were proud of their teammates and their hard work. “We had a group of people from all the departments,” Watkins said. “Everyone was good to work with.” Their team laid hoses and cut lines in preparation for the coming fires.  “We were in really dense brush and timber,” Watkins said. “We were following the dozers until they couldn’t go anymore.” Then, he said, their crews laid in handlines.

Strike team from Humboldt County

Firefighters from Humboldt County leaving the Camp Fire yesterday. [Photo by Kent Hulbert]

Every day they said they had to pay careful attention to the weather. Hulbert said, “It is pretty unpredictable.” He explained that they have meteorologist predicting what is happening so “we know where we want to be and how far [from the fire]. We’re experiencing bigger and more angry fires than we’ve seen in the past.”

These kinds of fires leave a wake of death and destruction in their path that can be hard on firefighting personnel. Watkins said, “I think it is really tramatic and stressful…The ordinary person on the street is not equipped to deal with it. It can be very stressful.”

Even as the firefighters are leaving, a Humboldt County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team heads into the ash-strewn hills of Butte County tomorrow. On Thanksgiving, as the rest of us fill our stomachs with turkey and our hearts with the laughter of our friends and families, these men and women and their K-9 companions will sift through burned homes and the battered hulks of cars while carrying on their shoulders the weight of the many lives lost. The memory of what they find will be seared into dark places inside them spreading the pain of the fire further. With them will go our news photographer, Mark McKenna.

Watkins said, “Those guys need our support and love.”

Hulbert stressed that firefighters and other personnel need to talk about what they experience. “You need to get it out,” he said. “People have bottled things up for so long that we’re starting to see a lot of stress.”

Watkins said that everyone who goes to these big fires sees stuff that “you just got to put away–compartmentalize…I don’t want to see that stuff again.”

But Hulbert said quietly, “Somethings you just have to make friends with because they just don’t go away.”

Several vehicles and a school bus were abandoned on Skyway in Paradise, Ca last Thursday as residents fled the fast moving Camp Fire

Several vehicles and a school bus were abandoned on Skyway in Paradise as residents fled the fast-moving Camp Fire. [Photo by Mark McKenna]

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17 comments

  • So sad that they have to send a team to look for remains!!!

  • This may be the caption for that last picture. The article from whence it came is a harrowing read.

    “Then the truck stopped, blocked by traffic.

    For a second time, Wilson ran, but now officers steered her back the way she had come. She found refuge in a school bus, where passengers cried and wailed as the driver rammed abandoned cars blocking the road. In a desperate attempt to get around, he swung the bus toward a ditch, where it got stuck.

    The buildings on both sides of the street were burning. Wilson climbed out the rear exit and resumed running. Take any car with keys in the ignition, officers shouted. “Just go.””

    https://www.gazettextra.com/news/nation_world/what-started-as-a-tiny-brush-fire-became-california-s/article_9b32290d-1cb4-554b-a984-ef7ae358b189.html

  • Well if Santa doesn’t give these victims and firefighters something special under the tree or in there stockings then I think he needs to retire.

  • Welcome home!
    I hope you can feel the gigantic cyber hug I’ve given each of you. Thank you for all your hard work, dedication and skills. You are my heroes.

    My heart aches for the fresh search team that is heading out. I offer you a psalm in hopes of stirring a sense of other worldly peace within your hearts.
    Psalm 40
    I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. Psalm 40:1-2

  • Poor mountain driving skills caused most of the casualties.
    Some of the escape videos showed city types blocking traffic.
    Dmv needs to include something about egress driving to help out
    The whole thing is very sad.

    • Read the article I linked to. When the first car’s tires started blowing up or the steering wheel started to melt that’s it; the second soon follows a no car is going anywhere. And, at this point, almost everyone is operating in blind panic mode.

      • I’m talking about videos I saw where a 5th wheel was trying to turn around and was jackknifed, people following too close, etc.

        • Y knot says;

          “Poor mountain driving skills caused most of the casualties”

          This is false.

          Is that clear and comprehensible for yer?

      • I read that article too. It should be read by anyone who thinks they would not have been caught by such a situation. The worst part for me was the deaths that occured in people looking for refuge in a creek, which was my go to plan. As the famous quote about war said “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

        A lot of those cars simply ran out of gas. In the article on Diana Totten it was mentioned that vehicles passing through that town were unable to get gas as the gas stations ran out. If just one vehicle did that here, a road like the one I live on would back up instantly.

    • Poor mountain driving skills? I think you are way of base with that comment. Those folks were running for their lives with death nipping at their heels. Now is not the time to blame anyone. May the deceased rest in peace, and the missing be found.

  • Reports of the tires melting also.

    Good job firefighters.

  • To urllr rover.. stupid shit you said!
    I mean really? You spent that much time drooling on yer own ideas… not very good writing by the way… you should think about writing for others n not yer self to make points you seem to need to share… much more fun💪🏻🦁

  • All those burned vehicles…. but the trees still have leaves.
    Nothing to see there, eh?

    • Many times the leaves will hang on the tree after a fire goes through but they are dead. If not consumed by the fire, they will fall off later.

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