It was about 12:30 in the morning on Monday. My assistant sheriff called and he said the county has a code red — a wildfire. I got into the car and turned on the patrol radio and there was an incredible amount of radio traffic. It was "evacuate here" and "don't come up this road." I could tell things were bad.
The assistant sheriff and I looked at the map. We were getting updates that there were other fires in the county and we realized that this was gonna be much bigger than we understood and we needed a long-term plan. We drew up a command chart, we picked a nighttime captain and a daytime captain, we called everybody in and gave them their assignments, and we ran like that for the next two or three weeks.
The fire came down the hill and it was burning the mobile home park just two blocks north of us. There was a concern that it was gonna come to the sheriff's office, where the REDCOM fire dispatch center is. The power had gone out, the generator came on, only the critical systems were on. I went upstairs to check on dispatch, and it was 80 degrees up there. They had fans on trying to blow smoke out and keep it cool. We started with six dispatchers and there were 18 of them by then. The fire was getting close; we thought we were gonna have to evacuate. But the fire dispatchers explained that they couldn't leave because their backup center is in St. Helena and they couldn't get there because of the fires. So, they put a line of fire trucks outside the sheriff's office to hold our building! We were averaging 300 phone calls an hour for the first eight hours. The first hour, there were 450 calls.
I remember one person came in and said, "There's no way we got everybody out. I’ve never seen fire move like that.”
It was so big, it took a while to get a full understanding of how widespread the fire was. And it just kept growing.
Deputies stopped people running down the freeway and put them in their cars and drove them to the Sheriff's Office. [Preventing] looting was a big deal to us. We had a lot of reinforcements from around the Bay Area. The National Guard was very helpful. They brought over a hundred Spanish speaking national guards, people who were actually working some of the shelters. They brought people who are trained at disaster mitigation, so they were able to go in and search the burned out houses for bodies. They were able to clean up the hospital faster than a contractor. At any given time they had 600 troops available.
There are three [ongoing] concerns for us: The county was impacted heavily financially; there's no property tax coming in. So, maintaining services is gonna be very difficult. The next thing is keeping people in burn areas secure where there are very few houses left. We're making sure to be in those areas and make sure they know that as we rebuild. And the third prong is trying to tamp down fraud so that we don't have people victimized again.
Whenever you work with other agencies, it gets bumpy. But this event went the smoothest I've ever seen because of how well people worked together. Santa Rosa fire, CalFire, the Santa Rosa police department; everybody's focus was protecting the community. That doesn't mean there wasn't conflict and problems. But we worked through all that to get the job done every time. It was one of the proudest moments of my career.