How first responders cope with weight of 2017 Tubbs Fire trauma

"Everybody has their own demons from this fire," said sheriff's Deputy Mark Aldridge


By Mary Callahan
The Press Democrat

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Towering flames and heat had already forced Jason Novak's CAL FIRE engine crew to turn back as they tried to drive into the Tubbs Fire to look for Armando and Carmen Berriz.

The plastic on his side mirror was warping and emitting gas, clearly approaching the ignition point, when he reluctantly called a halt to their second try.

This Oct. 14, 2017 photo shows an aerial view of the devastation of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. after the Tubbs Fire swept through.
This Oct. 14, 2017 photo shows an aerial view of the devastation of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. after the Tubbs Fire swept through. (File photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

But the fire captain had promised the missing couple's frantic daughter and son-in-law he would do all he could to find them.

The Berrizes hadn't made it down the hill after the family fled in separate cars from a remote vacation home above Riebli Road.

Novak knew he had to try again.

It gnawed at him through hours of desperate chaos as his four-man crew raced from one rescue to the next, first in the Mark West Springs/Riebli Road area, and then in Coffey Park, as an entire subdivision west of Highway 101 exploded in fire.

There was a woman in a flaming field — burned skin hanging from her arms, frantic to know where her husband and dog were.

There was the sleeping couple whose door Novak broke down; the care home whose residents had to be carried out as the flames arrived at the property next door; the older woman the crew helped prepare to flee her Coffey Park home, who asked in confusion, "Which way do I go to get out of here?"

At one point, Novak and a colleague sought refuge behind a house when flames separated them from their engine.

Late in the night, Novak thought he saw an opening to resume the search, but there was a call to fight the fire's advance into a corner of the Coffey Park subdivision, which ultimately saved more than a dozen homes.

It would be almost dawn before CAL FIRE Engine 1483 had time to wind back through the hellscape toward Crystal Springs Court, only to find Armando, his head and hands burned, walking toward them on the side of the road.

He wore one shoe and a woman's slipper.

His wife of 55 years was up at the house, lying on the steps of the pool where they had sought refuge and where she took her last breath.

"I just lost my best friend," Berriz told the firefighters.

It became a boulder in Novak's backpack.

In fire service and the growing field of emotional resilience, the backpack analogy describes how front-line workers accumulate trauma, or metaphorical rocks, in their emotional knapsacks.

Unless something's done to lighten the load, rocks keep filling the backpack until it drags a person down or the straps break and everything scatters.

Firefighters and other first responders are in the business of confronting crises, stepping in where others would flounder. Traumatic events are a fact of life.

Some are more haunting than others — the fatalities, drowned children, burn victims, and those left behind to grieve.

"Most of us have a Rolodex in our head" of the worst calls, said Sonoma County Fire District Division Chief and Fire Marshal Cyndi Foreman.


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A beast that would not be tamed

On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, Novak, now 42, had just returned from a wedding in Redding, driving home through "crazy wind," when he learned of a fire near Calistoga. He started making calls.

"I need some help," his battalion chief, Gino DeGraffenreid, told him from near the fire's origin on Bennett Lane.

Novak had his engine crew at CAL FIRE's Cloverdale station pick him up at home in Healdsburg. Soon, they were on the road to Calistoga through Alexander Valley, clearing downed trees, moving power poles and steering evacuees toward safety as conditions rapidly deteriorated.

It was clear almost right away that this beast of fire would not be tamed — that the mission was saving lives, not fighting fire — a fact that weighed heavily on firefighters that night and in the weeks and months to come.

In the aftermath, most departments had personnel leave — some retiring early, going on stress leave or pursuing other paths.

"We swore an oath to protect this community, and Mother Nature won the fight that night," says Santa Rosa Fire Chief Scott Westrope, then a battalion chief.

Novak's crew was one of a handful of fire crews deployed along Porter Creek and Mark West Springs Road. They were joined by Sonoma County sheriff's deputies who had been called in to evacuate the hill in the choking smoke and glow of the advancing fire.

Novak recalls in detail the people he helped rejoin their loved ones that night, and how he found the Berrizes' daughter, Monica Ocon, as she frantically paced along Riebli Road, a phone to her ear, unable to find her husband and parents.

Minutes later, after sending Ocon and her daughter down to safety, Novak headed up the road and encountered a distraught Luis Ocon and told him to leave, saying the crew would look for his in-laws.

Two later texts from Luis Ocon would confirm for Novak that he was their "last hope."

Before the night was over, Novak and everyone on the mountain would collect more than their share of rocks for their backpack.

There had been no wildfire like it, pushed by extreme winds 12 miles across the Mayacamas in just a few hours, destroying almost 4,660 homes and taking 22 lives.

Trees ignited and walls of fire lined both sides of the roads as they navigated around falling branches and downed power lines trying to get people out.

Cars crashed. Motorists got turned around. Residents were confused, angry, overwhelmed and panicked.

One deputy drove off-road into a vineyard to avoid being burned. A first-year firefighter taking cover from the flames had to be restrained — he was so terrified he just wanted to run.

Several first responders trying to make rescues on behalf of desperate family members found they were too late as drama after drama played out on their radio channels. Some of those who were evacuating civilians would soon learn their own homes had gone up in flames.

Sheriff's Lt. Brandon Cutting, then a sergeant, was the department's senior person on duty and remembers telling a dispatcher to plan evacuating "all the way to 101," thinking "when you think you've gone far enough, go a little farther." He never imagined the fire would jump the freeway and keep going.

The road between Calistoga and Santa Rosa is filled with narrow, branching roads and long driveways, each offering opportunities to leave folks behind.

The fire kept coming, and there was no time to process, "What did we miss? Who did we miss?" Cutting said. "If I was scared of anything it was pausing too long to think about that."

If doubt did try to raise its ugly head, "You just tamped it down, because there was so much to do in front of us," Cutting said.

It was three years before Cutting dared map out where the fatalities occurred.

"I didn't know what I missed for three years intentionally, because nobody wants to know what they missed or didn't get," he said. "It took me three years before I was willing to look at that."

When he finally confronted it, he found his worst fears were true. Several of the victims had indeed come from those narrow roads off Mark West Springs.


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Last deputy on the hill

That night, Cutting had driven down to Old Redwood Highway to get fuel, leaving sheriff's Deputy Mark Aldridge as the last deputy on the hill.

The fire had cut off the exit down Mark West Springs Road, leaving Aldridge in the thick of stalled evacuation traffic near Mark West Lodge with no clear way out.

"At that point to the east of me was nothing but fire," Aldridge recalled, "and to the west of me was nothing but fire. We were just stuck, and the feeling of helplessness, knowing I'm not getting anybody out, and I've got a bunch of people that I kind of feel responsible for — I am responsible for, really — I'm thinking, 'What do I do?'"

"It was a lot of helplessness but putting on the face of 'You gotta look like you know what you're doing,'" he said. "Apparently, it worked."

Aldridge recalled that his father, a volunteer firefighter during the 1964 Hanly Fire, which traveled much the same path as the Tubbs, had told him how the earlier fire burned around the historic Mark West Lodge and Event Center.

It was far less than ideal, but there was nowhere else to go, so Aldridge shepherded about three dozen people, from infants to a 91-year-old, into the middle of the lodge parking lot, where they stayed almost until morning.

He had them hang blankets or clothing inside their car windows to reflect the heat if the fire came near. He told them to jump inside and close the doors if called upon to do so and to not come out until instructed.

He still had a radio, so dispatch could check on him. But it also meant he and those around him could hear the unimaginable unfolding, as the wildfire consumed Paradise Ridge Winery, the Round Barn, Kmart and more than 1,400 homes in Coffey Park.

As with the Hanly Fire, the topography would channel the Tubbs Fire around where Aldridge and his wards waited. By morning, it died down enough for Cutting and other deputies to drive up and help them pick their way, single file, down the road past still-exploding trees, swaying power equipment and abandoned and burned vehicles.

Cutting had the kids close their eyes "because it was pretty horrific."

Aldridge followed the group to ensure they were safe, then drove home to Forestville to hug his family before heading back to work.

Within days, a strange guilt began creeping into his emotions — the "guilt about not being able to help elsewhere" while he kept watch at the lodge.

"Whether you're a fireman or a cop, you're trained to solve the problem, not wait to let it pass you by," he said. "The guilt is there. It shouldn't be. We're not trained that way. But everybody has their own demons from this fire."

Aldridge said counseling has helped, and he finds calm in his large vegetable garden and puttering around his house.

But he is impatient about the stands of dead trees he sees on the hills — reminders of an event he would prefer not to relive. He travels Mark West Springs Road only when necessary.

'Not on my watch'

Westrope, the Santa Rosa chief, described it as "a heart/brain disconnect."

"My brain knows that everybody did everything they could, given the circumstances, to protect this community. My brain knows that there was a fire coming extremely fast — faster than we could move, and Mother Nature was winning," he said.

"But my heart is broken because we didn't protect this community like we always thought we could."

Many have described feeling helpless or powerless as the Tubbs and other fires burning that night raged through their communities.

"That's why we do this job, because 'not on my watch,' right?" said Foreman. "That's just how we navigate our jobs. 'Not on our watch.' And this was, and it was on such a catastrophic level.

"There were just so many people who lost their homes. There were people who died horrific, tragic deaths. There are children that are scarred for the rest of their lives. There are adults that are scarred for the rest of their lives."

The 2017 fires were "the first time in this generation of firefighters that the damage happened on our turf, and you couldn't get away from it," said CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville.

"You drove by it on your way to work. It was in your community. Everyone knew someone that was drastically affected," Turbeville said. "It was on home turf."

Many in the fire service carried that burden into the 2019 Kincade Fire, as if seeking redemption in their drive to save communities like Mark West Springs and Windsor.

But even in those two years, progress being made to advance the emotional and mental health needs of firefighters and other first responders, with most local police and fire departments now offering greater access to different types of services and working to remove the stigma around needing help.

Attention to these issues already was building in public safety agencies before the North Bay burst into flames in 2017, given increased understanding of traumatic stress, its psychological and physiological effects, and suicide statistics that make clear its dangers.

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But the North Bay fires, and the catastrophic wildfires that followed, have only underscored the urgency, particularly locally and in other parts of California.

The overwhelming speed and scale of the fires, especially the Tubbs, and the magnitude of the losses, both human and structural, exacted a heavy toll on people accustomed to using their skill, training and tools to solve problems. The advent of cellphones and social media means it's harder to escape them, as well.

Firefighters, especially, Deputy Santa Rosa Fire Chief Travers Collins said, "are always the last ones to ask for help, and oftentimes they're pretty far down the road (when they recognize the need) and they don't really know what to do."

There's a long tradition, he and others said, of just doing the job at hand, neglecting personal feeling and ignoring signs that trouble's afoot, like difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol use or arguing with a spouse.

Law enforcement and fire agencies are now more purposeful about peer support programs, providing resiliency training and offering front-line personnel more choices to find help that fits, as well as providing culturally competent practitioners with insight into the life of someone in fire service or law enforcement.

"I definitely think the culture is changing," CAL FIRE's Turbeville said.

Young firefighters "are coming into a fire service where behavioral health is top of mind," said Westrope. "It's talked about in the academy. They're coming into a fire service that is welcoming and wanting those conversations."

Even veterans are becoming more comfortable with seeking help.

"People will say, 'I saw the counselor last week,'" Collins said. "We talk about it all the time."

Novak was devastated over the loss of Carmen Berriz, 75. Despite the lives he and his crew saved that night, the "failure" mattered more.

He didn't realize how much it weighed him down in the months after the Tubbs Fire, but it became increasingly difficult to be out in the world, in a community still recovering from the siege, where everyone had a story to tell and the historic disaster was still front of mind.

If he was in uniform, people wanted to thank him, but it remained an irritant, a trigger. And every market, restaurant, place he went exposed him to more of it.

"I wanted nothing to do with nothing," Novak said.

He was raised to abide by old notions of what was required of a firefighter: unperturbed, suck-it-up, tough-guy self-reliance, where "if you had any issues, you're not going to tell anybody."

When he was instructed in 2018 to attend a three-day resiliency workshop run by Susan Farren, a retired local paramedic, he was more than resistant.

"I sat in my chair with my arms crossed like, 'You don't know me. I'm not going to talk to strangers,'" Novak said.

But something happened in those three days, hearing relatable stories, learning about the tools he could use. He felt challenged to master the lessons and seek out his own health.

"After three days, I was absolutely all in," Novak said, not just a believer but a true disciple — an advocate for erasing the stigma of needing help.

Now his crew sometimes meditates in the station, he said.

After a particularly gruesome middle-of-the-night vehicle crash last year, he had them color in coloring books instead of returning directly to their bunks where, he knew, they were likely to replay the incident over in their minds.

They used their left hands to try to stay inside the lines, provoking unexpected laughter after so unsettling a night.

It also meant activating the right sides of their brains — normally suppressed at times of emotional pain and stress — and, in the very simplest terms, interfering with the potential for the trauma to seat itself in their brains, said Farren, the resiliency trainer.

Novak has remained in touch with Armando Berriz and his family. He has been to the rebuilt vacation home, where he sat by the pool to reflect.

"It's been five years," he said last week. "There's been a lot of healing. It was very, very hard."

But he can see now what his crew did the night the fire came through, how many hundreds of lives were saved.

He knows he must stay vigilant. But his backpack is lighter now that he's left the boulder behind.

"I did the best I could," he said. "I'm very proud."

___

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