Humboldt County Firefighters Return Home From the Fatal Camp Fire as a Local Search and Rescue Team Prepares to Look for Bodies
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.“Arcata Fire District, Briceland 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. 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.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.”