Clifford Broome: We thought we were going to fight a grass fire. But this was totally different. This was a once in a lifetime deal.
Michael Shuken: We tried to show in the video that the gravity of what was going on was not immediately apparent. We're prepared to do whatever we need to do when we show up, but we started rolling into Santa Rosa and it was like, "Wow! You can see the whole ridge on fire!” Then, "Boy, that burning smells more like houses than brush." Then we start seeing structures backlit with flames. As we got into the city it dawned on us. "We're not just gonna be going in to the hills and squirting some water on brushfire.” And when Kmart was on fire, that was the exclamation point. As we drove through the burned out subdivision, we didn't even realize there had been houses there; they’d almost been vaporized. And then we started realizing this [had been] dozens of homes. Wait, this was hundreds of homes. This will potentially be thousands of homes! And it was almost like different types of fires. In Coffey Park it was like a fireball blew through and just leveled everything. When we got to Fountaingrove, the fire seemed more picky. Some houses were completely burned to the ground and then you had others right next door that were standing.
MS: We were there for 12, maybe 14 hours.
CB: We got there at five in the morning and we probably didn't leave our last assignment until about 4:00 am. The strike team leader was concerned about my [injured] finger. I probably hadn't had a tetanus shot in a while. I probably had glass in my finger and, if I cut a tendon, it was important that I be seen as quickly as possible.
MS: We were pretty beat.
CB: Yeah, we were tired and hungry.
MS: Everybody says MREs are terrible, but when they brought us MREs, it was one of the best meals I'd ever eaten!
When you're there that long, you start noticing [details about people’s lives]. First, you just notice there's a house burning. You put the flames out. Then you notice there's a bike outside. So you figure, "Ok. They’ve got kids." And then, after another half hour, you notice it’s a little pink bike, and realizes it’s like your daughter's. You start building a profile, and without ever meeting them you become sort of attached to the family in a way.
CB: There were a couple of residents who snuck back into the neighborhood. I wasn't going to try to stop them. I just said, “Be very careful.” The looks on their faces when they were walking back were just heartbreaking. All you can do is hug them and say, “I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner.”
MS: Yeah, we did the best we could.
The most remarkable thing is the resilience of the people, especially those who lost everything. I would be crushed! Two days after the fire, people who lost their houses were baking cookies for us and bringing them to the station! That's amazing fortitude! CB: We just happened to get the call. I don't typically sign up for those kinds of assignments because they take a lot of training and they're very dangerous. So it was kind of funny for two guys over forty, who have never been on an assignment like that. And we were all pretty confident, in each other and ourselves. So it worked out pretty good.
There aren’t two guys I'd rather have been with than these two.
CB: Yeah, ditto. Ditto.