Clifford Broome and Michael Shuken from the Berkeley Fire Department created the video documenting their experiences fighting the Tubbs fire that went viral. The video showed their reactions as they rolled into Santa Rosa and their efforts in fighting the fire throughout the day. Their unique perspective and their insight as fire fighters provided for an informative interview so I've decided to present their remarks in a longer format.
...The Day of...
Roman Cho: That Sunday. What was the day and the evening like in terms of the weather conditions?
Clifford Broome : Windy. we had a meeting earlier that morning and the battalion chief had briefed us that about 11 o'clock at night the winds were really gonna pick up. So we did our typical put up our red flag on the pole. Let everybody know it was a red flag evening, or red flag day. The winds would be high, the humidity would be at a certain point. You know you get a lot of those in the summertime. You do everything you're supposed to do as far as the notifications and putting up your little visual signs, if you will. But I didn't think much about it after that until that evening when we were sleeping, we could hear the wind really pick up. It was howling.
Michael Shuken: There was a number of combinations that alarmed us that evening; maybe not alarmed but couple of things made us take note: One was, like Clifford was talking about, that wind at midnight or one in the morning...that flag was standing straight out on that flagpole. But the other thing was that he talked about humidity. That was very low that morning and the winds were coming from the hills, they weren't coming from the ocean which is something that is very concerning to us. Cause typically, you get a cooling wind from the ocean, bringing some moisture in. August, October, early November, we get these reverse winds called Diablo winds. And so you're getting all that warm dry air that's accelerating out of the mountains and it's going the opposite direction that we want it to.
CB: I didn't suspect that anything was going to happen because we heard it, especially during that season, a hundred times. You know we had multiple red flag days. You hope nothing's gonna happen and you're always prepared but in the back of my mind, after all these years, I just said, "ahhh, that's just what we do. It's red flag day.” The conditions are such that we have to say it's a red flag day. But I had no inkling at all.
MS: Yeah, we do think about it. Any time those conditions line up the way that they did, You cannot but think, "man if something got going on these hills here, that would be pretty devastating", especially after '91. What happened here, which was very similar conditions: low humidity, high wind gusts. Diablo winds coming from the wrong direction.
But even those fires, when we started getting those phone calls, it still sounded like a big brush fire, a big grass fire. We sort of pictured it rolling through the hills in Sonoma county and that was what we were gonna go up and sort of help out with.
...The Fire Season...
RC: What was it like this season in terms of fires? Was it higher than normal, average or was it lower? Were you guys more active?
CB: I thought it was actually kinda low for as hot as it was. We had a few structure fires. Maybe a few small grass fires that we had a 6 engine on along the side of the highway. But nothing up in the hills up here until that evening. It was a pretty quiet summer actually.
MS: But also, we were coming off of a five years of drought. And the drought did a number of things: It dried our vegetation out. It killed a lot of the trees. It let bugs come in and that sort of thing. So we had five years of everything just drying out then one year of massive amount of rain which then causes a lot of what we call "flashy fuels" like the grass grow up. And it grows up quickly. So we had a combination of super dried out trees, sort of the older more mature vegetation either died or had a lot of the moisture taken out of it and within a six or eight month period, we had two three four foot grass that grew up. And when summer came, that dried up. So that particular combination is pretty significant....They're gonna be studying this fire for years. But my guess is that combination of newly grown grass from that wet season to the five years of drought stricken denser vegetation, once that kind of came together, and put that wind behind it?...It was just a terrible combination of the last five, six years. There was another crew that asked me, well what do you think we could've done to change this? It was like, I have no idea.
We sort of boxed ourselves in here as a society: building up into the hills. We haven't let forest fires burn like the native americans did. They used to come out every year and actually light the hill on fire on purpose. And what that would do is that grass I was telling you about, that would burn all that grass off. You've heard about this; these prescriptive burns. The native americans would burn all that grass off, would burn the lower branches off the trees, get rid of some of that and it would go out. and that's it. And they had a very healthy ecosystem. The trees became very robust, fire resistant. All that grass didn't have a chance to build up. Then around 1920's, I think, we decided that we weren't gonna let any forest fires burn. At all! And so we got this tremendous amount of fuel that's built up in our forest. We've got five years of drought that killed a bunch of trees. We're building houses into the wilderness areas. And now I guess it doesn't even matter if it's in the wilderness areas. That fire blew into a city! And burned down a subdivision.
We have two different types of gear on our engines, we have the structured gear which is when you see the firefighters walking around with the big bulky outfits, and then the yellow ones that Cliff and I were wearing are called wildland gear. Previously, firefighters whose primary job was in an urban area didn't really even carry wildland gear. That was for guys that worked out in the hills, mountains. But because of how the housing has sorta crept up into the hills and the climate change and all that sort of things, we're called more and more to the kind of fires where we would need to wear those different outfits that we were just being photographed in. So we did get told recently to double check that stuff. make sure all your canteens are full, your gears are in place for wildland fires even though when you think of Berkeley, you don't typically think of wildland.
MS: It was all about timing. Napa called, we weren't available. Twenty minutes later Santa Rosa called and we were available.
CB: Had it been a few minutes different time-wise, they probably would've sent another engine. I think they were gonna send Engine 5 but at the time they were still on the Ajax fire [here in Berkeley]. So they said, well just send us whoever you got. And they sent us, I guess, just because we were closest to the freeway. They wanted us to marry up with four engines from San Francisco to form a strike team. So about 5 o'clock they told us to grab our gear and head on up to Petaluma. And they gave us a kind of a rendezvous point for meeting the rest of our strike team.
We probably got up to Petaluma maybe about quarter to six. or shortly thereafter. The San Francisco engines arrived. We kinda had a small briefings, talked about what radio channels we'd be working off of. And they said that we were gonna go, I believe, at that time, to Kmart to get our next assignment. From who I'm not sure.
When we were dispatched...we thought we were going to fight grass fire. We were going into what we thought was just gonna be a hill, mountainous area. And maybe not even do much cause we were on a type 1 engine. Sometimes, type 1 engines will just sit there because we're kind of limited in a way. We do have a lot of water. We have a lot of hose. but if stuff hits the fan, now you have to break that hose and make sure you're not only saving someone else's property, but you're saving yourself. So I had no idea what we were getting into. We joked when we were going up there, Kyle, the captain had just taken a class and the instructor had made a comment about, "yeah, you guys go up there in type 1 engines. ha ha ha. and all you do is kind of sit around and wait for an assignment." This was TOTALLY different. Totally different. This was a once in a lifetime deal.
MS: The Type 1 engine is primarily designed to fight fires in cities. Normally if you go to a grass fire, you're gonna bring a type 3 engine. It has four wheel drive. It's narrower wheel base. It's easier to maneuver in the mountains. So when we take a type 1 engine like that up to a grass fire, we figure we're gonna be on the periphery cause it can't go off pavement. So when we went up there, just the fact that we were in our type 1 engine, we didn't really expect to be getting into any real significant wildland-type fire fighting other than helping out. And a lot of times, with those particular areas that are more rural than here, what they'll do is they'll completely drain their city of firefighters and apparatus to go fight the fires because that's what they're more equipped for. They live in that environment. Their engines are typically more designed to go up in the hills and we come in to do what's called "backfill". We'll sit in the firehouse and run their medical calls. If a little fire breaks out that's not related to that one, we'll go put it out. And in our minds, I think, we probably thought if we're not gonna help out of the peripheries with this fire, we're just gonna backfill. We're gonna run their medical calls.
When we put the video out, everyone's been really supportive, but there has been questions about how "wasn't there communications?" "How come you thought you were going to a grass fire." "Why didn't you.." And my impression is that this thing blew up so fast- it went fifteen miles in four hours, Which is really unprecedented!- I think they were just trying to get their minds around at the incident command what even was happening because the disaster unfolded so rapidly. People say, "well, why'd they send you to Kmart if it was on fire?" I guarantee they did not expect that. That's an anchor in a city. They figure if there's a safe place to meet, It's gonna be the Kmart. Plus, any emergency call that we go on, there's a period- I wouldn't call chaos- but there's a period of sort of organizing what's gonna happen before you actually look like you know what you're doing. And the bigger and more complicated the call, the longer that period of time is going to be. Because you're still trying to figure out in the command booth what is happening. You're still calling in resources to assist. So I don't think there was anything wrong with the way the call unfolded and our our information we got going up there. The one thing I will say is we did get this call for "immediate assistance". Normally when we do mutual aid, they give you half an hour, fifteen minutes to, you know, put extra water and toilet paper in your sleeping bag on the engine. This was treated like a 911 call, for a city over an hour away.
...Driving into Santa Rosa...
MS: We tried to show in the video that...the gravity of what was going on was not IMMEDIATELY apparent. Certainly, we're prepared to do whatever we need to do when we show up but, you know, we start rolling into Santa Rosa and it was like, "wow! you can see the whole ridge on fire. Okay they got some good fire here." Then, "boy, that burning smells more like houses burning rather than brush." Then you start seeing structures backlit with flames, then you start seeing building in flames! And so I think as we progressively got into the city it sort of dawned on us like "wow, this is actually...we're not gonna be going in to the hills and squirting some water on brushfire. You got major structures burning down here." And when that Kmart was on fire, that was just sort of the exclamation point on it. Like, this thing has gotten into the city, which I don't think any of us, I don't think anybody expected that.
CB: To pull up to a structure that's fully involved and not hop out of the cab pull out your hoses and try to put it out was kind of different. It was a different situation which is why we didn't get out and put it out, because there was so much on fire. Our goal was we were trying to find some homes to protect. So that was kind of weird for me. Kind of surreal just to sit up and just watch it burn!
MS: I think it really struck us when we drove into that transition from sort of downtown or where it was into the subdivision, we thought "oh my god! this thing must've rolled through here at an unbelievable speed. No wonder they couldn't tell us where to meet each other. This fire is moving SO fast and it is so destructive. And it did kind of feel like, you know you can see from where we were the head of our strike team, everywhere we pulled up, you can almost picture the big question mark over the guy's head like, "huh, this isn't gonna work!"
...Fighting the Fire...
CB: I think at that point we were kind of on our own. So we just cruised through subdivisions looking for something to save. And it was unbelievable! It's unbelievable to drive through a subdivision of hundreds of homes and NOTHING standing two hours later. Just foundations, maybe a few chimneys. It almost seemed impossible that that kind of devastation could occur that quickly! So for me, part of me was just trying to process that and the other part was, because I'm driving, I'm watching where I'm going. I'm trying to look for something to save as well. Probably slowly becoming more conscious of keeping your head on a swivel, like "wow, this can be hairy" For all of us as a strike team.
MS: The thing was too, as we drove through this burned out subdivision, first, we didn't even realize there had been houses there. They were almost vaporized. And then we started realizing that this is dozens of homes. Wait, this is hundreds of homes. This potentially will be thousands of homes! People were living here. People went to bed last night, crawled under the covers, set their alarm for the next day and now they got nothing left. We talked a little about that in the cab. Everything is gone, everything that's important to these people.
Our primary goal is obviously rescue. That's what we do. We don't care if the house burns to the ground, we want to get the people out. And we looked at this and we thought, if somebody was in any one of these homes and was a deep sleeper or whatever...they perished. There's just no way that people were gonna escape that unless they got some kind of warning.
MS: Then you can hear ammunitions shooting off. And there was a lot of ammunitions! You hear the ammunitions shooting off. The telephone poles were burning through and we were worried. One of our big mantra is, of course, safety. And if there's a downed power line in the road, you don't drive over it. But in this particular case, it was almost like we were compelled to do that. We drove over power lines that were down...
CB: ...cut down limbs off of trees. Actually to make access to the street we ended up on, Mike had to cut a couple of limbs off of a tree and remove a bollard. It was at the end of a cul de sac so we had to drive up over the curb though these trees and on into the cul de sac then we changed our position so that we could escape the same way and just started fighting fires.
MS: We were really worried about that. We were worried about the wind shifting. We saw what happened to that neighborhood. And we hit it almost I think at the perfect time. We showed up to these row of houses that were on fire. There was a pretty wide street at that point and the wind had JUST died down. It was that moment where we were able to say, "okay, this is it then. If we're gonna stop this, this is the perfect time and place to do it." But still in the back of our minds the whole time were thinking "ok let's make sure that engine's turned around and if we had to jump on and get out of here..." You know, we had to really be aware of that.
...And it was such a different, almost like a different type of fire. Coffey Park was like a fireball blew through there and just leveled everything. And when we got to Fountaingrove, the fire seemed to more kinda picky. It was weird. Some houses were completely burned to the ground and then you have one right next door to it that was standing. It was a remarkable fire. There's just no question.
Some of that in Fountaingrove was simply us in some ways that chose what houses burned and which ones didn't. At Coffey Park, it was simply a matter of throwing what we had at it to get it to stop. When we went to Fountaingrove, we'd pull up on a street where there was maybe ten homes and you'd see two of them were burning to the ground and there's no way to save them. Maybe three or four were fine and three or four had little smoldering decks or eaves or something like that. And we had one or two engines. We'd have to pick one of the houses and say that's the one we're gonna go put the deck out. You leave the deck on fire, eventually it'll catch the house on fire and burn it down so we would choose maybe one house or the leader would choose one house that we'd focus on or two houses. I kept thinking, "man, that is just so random" You know you're looking at two houses and it's like triage like when we do when there's bunch of people injured and you have to pick the best one that you think has the best chances of survival. Same with those houses. We'd look at those houses and go, "uhh...that one."
We ended up primarily fighting structure fires, which is kinda ironic. We showed up thinking we're going to a grass fire. We dress like we're going for a grass fire. We showed up at this row of houses which are structure fires and so we ended up fighting structure fires in our grass gear, which is far less protective, far less appropriate for the kind of firefighting we were doing. Yet, you just accommodate. Like when a car's on fire, there's some danger to that. It has the gas struts the bumpers are mounted on. Those things can shoot off. So you want to be fully [protected]. You want to have your thick gear on. Your helmet with your face mask down and all the toxins that burn off the cars, you want to have your respirator on. So we basically were fighting something like a car fire in our grass gear which is not safe or appropriate yet that's sort of how things unfold. Very underprotected. And that's kind of one of the things; these fires are combination of grass fire, structure fire, car fire. And you can't just change outfits each block. So you just have to kind of make do or try to be safe as you can. Yeah it was intense.
RC: How long were you guys up there in total?
MS: 12 hrs, 14 hrs?
CB: Yeah, we got there five in the morning and we probably didn't leave our last assignment until about 4. We were at a chemical/industrial research lab or something and we had to put out a small fire up on the roof. I think that was our last assignment. The strike team leader was concerned about my finger. He was concerned that I probably hadn't had tetanus shot in a while. I probably had glass in my finger and if I did cut a tendon, it was important that I'd be seen as quickly as possible and get the ball rolling on repairing my finger. So about 3:30-4 o'clock he cut us loose.
MS: We were pretty beat.
CB:Yeah, we were little tired. A little hungry. We had some sandwiches but we pretty much hadn't eaten a whole lot really the whole day.
MS: When they brought the MREs for us! Everybody says, "MREs are terrible, they taste bad." Man that was one of the best meals I've ever eaten!
The other thing that struck me and I didn't think about this til later but we were probably at that one row of homes kinda defending them for about three, four hours. And you almost become attached to that row of houses. It's hard to describe but they kind of become yours. Like, I know they belong to homeowners and we're protecting the things that are important to them but in a way too is that we're not gonna let this fire burn these houses down. And you become very familiar with the houses. You become very familiar with them enough that when we were told to leave that neighborhood, we hadn't completely put all the fires out but there was more pressing needs and it was almost like we didn't want to go. It's like, "no no. These are our homes! I want to make sure these don't burn down. I wanna stamp every last ember out here before we leave because I feel very attached to these homes now.” And I never had that before. Usually, we go put a car fire out, put a house fire out. You don't have that emotional attachment but it was weird. It was like that neighborhood became our neighborhood.
RC: Why was that? Was it the scale?
MS: Part of it was the scale in that you saw what happened to the houses that burned down but also when you're there that long, you start noticing things like the little kid's bike that's out front. First when you show up, you just notice there's a house burning. You put the flames out. Then you notice there's, maybe, a bike. So you figure, "ok. they got kids." And then after another half hour- cause you're there a long period of time- you go, "that's a little pink bike. That's like my daughter's bike." And so you almost start building a profile of who these people are. And without ever even meeting them you become sort of attached to their family in a way.
CB: There were couple of residents, during the course of our firefight, that snuck back in the neighborhood to just take a peek and they wanted to know if they could go and look. I wasn't going to try to stop them. [I just said] be very careful and, man, the looks on their faces when they were walking back, both of them were just heartbreaking. 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.
CB: Yeah, we did the best we could.
CB: The captain reminded us like, "guys this was a once in a career fire". At the time, before he had arrived, we kind of were comparing it to the Oakland fire. When he came in, he explained to us it was BIGGER than the Oakland fire! that there close to 6000 structures that had burned, turned out to be 7000 in total now. and 30-40 people that had died. That's when I was like, "wow!"
MS: This might be a decade or more for that community to fully recover and rebuild. But also just to clarify what we've all sort of been talking about the last ten years as we've expanded into the wilderness areas with our houses and as the climate has changed, it seems like every October we kind of hold our breath, like, "man, I sure hope nothing bad happens.'' Then you have like the Cedar Fire in Los Angeles. You have these fires that are becoming bigger and more significant and they're taking more homes...After this, especially Santa Rosa, we realize, it's not just wildland homes that are at risk. It's not just people on this urban interface area. This came down into a city and devoured thousands of homes. And when that's the case, it's like maybe, ok, we're going to have to take a couple of steps back. Where do we even start? We talked about the fuel load that's been building up for a hundred years. We talked about how do you hide all your ignition sources? Put power lines in the ground? If you look at houses built out in the country right now there's lot of rules for building them. They have to have eaves that are boxed in. You have to have clear space. The decks can't be exposed underneath. Lots of little things; self closing vents. We don't do those in cities because we don't ever expect this type of fire to occur in a city. And yet here is an example of thousands of homes being destroyed because of wildland fire. So whether it's doing prescriptive burns to lower the fuel load or designing the houses differently, or notification system like Cliff is saying, I think there's gonna be a lot of proposals and probably some changes that comes out of this one particular fire. I just hope this is a once in a lifetime event. I hope this is a generational fire. I just hope next year, we don't have another one like this. Then all of a sudden it’s not a once in a generation fire, it's sort of the new norm.
I think the most remarkable thing is just the absolute resilience of the people that went through it, especially the people that lost everything. Personally, if I came home and my house burned down and my stuff was gone, I would be crushed! And yet, these people that we're meeting, the optimism...I've been humbled by that...Two days after the fire, people who lost their houses were baking cookies and stuff for us and bringing them to the station in Berkeley! That's an amazing spirit. That's amazing fortitude!.. I think that was one of the biggest surprises for me. So that's the thing that I go away from this event with is that it's absolutely remarkable how quickly people have accommodated this disaster and said to themselves, we're moving forward.
RC: How was it to have to walk away from these houses or not being able to save these houses?
CB: That was kind of tough emotionally. We would've loved to have gotten up there an hour or two more and saved even more, you know? Which is kind of weird because after the incident, I made a point to talk to my wife who's a school psychologist and even my kids about it. I felt like I kinda needed to process it. Usually when I mess up at work, I'll beat myself up for two days and I felt like as a unit we did a great job but I think all of us collectively wished we could've done more.
I didn't actually start processing the whole event until it was actually over, probably that night when I laid in bed. Yeah, that evening I started processing like, "wow! What just happened!"
Even post incident it was tough. My wife was reading me some of the facebook posts of some of the individuals whose homes we had saved and even some of the individuals whose homes weren't saved. And they were all very positive comments but after about ten of them she read to me, I could just feel this emotion. Even though it was positive [comments], it was weird. I became kind of overwhelmed with little bit of emotion. I didn't start breaking down and crying but I literally turned over and away from her and said, "alright, that's great, babe. I'll read em all later. I'm just gonna go to sleep right now." I felt like I was on overload.
RC: What was all that attention like once the video went viral? Was it just a thing or was it burdensome?
CB: I kinda had mixed emotions. I was happy that people were appreciative of what we did and what we do in general. But then I was sad that we couldn't do more. That we couldn't save more homes. That we couldn't save em all, you know? So I kinda had mixed emotions. And still kinda do. And still kind of processing it. If it helps them start the process of rebuilding their lives then that's great.
MS: I started getting calls where people wanted to interview me for something on the news. And I got the first couple of calls from the chief. He said, 'hey, you can do this or not do this. It's up to you." First I said no. I'd rather go fight fire than have a camera put in front of me and actually say something. So I was kind of dodging it at first what the news shows wanted. My wife finally said, "you know, why are you not answering the phone when reporter calls? Why are you not taking advantage of this?" "Well, I'm just kinda nervous." She says "people's houses burned down! Any publicity you give to this is gonna drive donations. And it's gonna drive attention to this fire relief. It's your responsibility to take advantage of that and make sure that every donation that could possibly be made, every person who this can reach that might want to participate in fire relief do it." And when she put it in that context, I'm like, "you know, you're right." So I did the first couple of interviews and then after a first couple, it became a little bit easier when I understood the process.
CB: I was apprehensive as well. This is the first time I have spoken to anybody about it. And I was just nervous. And I think I was also still just kind of processing it. So I kind of really wasn't sure what to think of it. When I think of media, I think nervous. You know they're gonna take something out of context. So I really didn't want anything to do with it. And I think a lot of us too just as firefighters in this career, we don't really seek attention. And that's one of the great things about the career. We can look at each other and know "I know he just saved somebody on a medical call." "Mike, that was a great job!" And that's all he needs. A lot of psychic income that's involved in this profession so we don't necessarily need a pat on the back. That's one of the great things about it. I don't need my boss to come and say you did a great job cause I KNOW I did a great job. So we're not really attention seekers in that respect. We're almost the opposite. At least me personally. I was just doing my job.
We just happened to get the call. And we joked about it afterwards. We're not on the strike team. We don't sign up for those kinds of assignments. I might stay back here and backfill and work some of the overtime for those guys going but I don't typically sign up for those kinds of assignments cause they take a lot of training and they're very dangerous. So it was kind of funny for two guys over forty, we don't sign up for those kind of assignments, we've never been on an assignment like that. "Here we go!" And we were all pretty confident, in each other and ourselves. So it actually worked out pretty good.
MS: There wasn't two guys I'd rather have been with than these two.
CB: Yeah, ditto. Ditto.