A handful of Patterson residents recently stood amid thousands of charred acres in Southern California, ready to fight a fire that had raged since late October.
Nearly a dozen locals — mostly Patterson Fire Department volunteers — headed south to help with firefighting and disaster relief. They were there because of the several fires that broke out during the past 2½ weeks, consuming more than 200,000 acres and displacing more than 500,000 people.
The largest fire, dubbed the Witch Fire by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, started Oct. 21 and consumed almost 198,000 acres before firefighters contained the blaze.
“It was a devastating sight to see,” Patterson firefighter Brandon Mimms said.
Before the firestorm was contained, it killed two people, destroyed 1,125 homes and injured 40 firefighters. About $18 million was spent between Oct. 21 and Monday to battle the blaze.
Local crews said fierce winds made it one of the worst fires they could recall.
“It was crazy,” Patterson firefighter David Hohl said.
He and his team of three spent most of their week down south trying to stop buildings from burning. They lost only one structure they had set out to save, Hohl said. He didn’t keep a count of the homes he and his team managed to keep standing.
Hohl said the winds created a chaotic environment. Some houses whose owners had taken good fire-protection measures — using tile roofs and having brush cleared from near the residence — burned to the ground, while unpredictable winds left some homes surrounded by brush unscathed.
“You’d see a multimillion-dollar home standing, and next to it, the other one’s gone,” Hohl said. “With winds like that, it is so random.”
Emergency responders were stretched thin, given the vast amount of land that the fires covered, he said.
Hohl and his team have been home since Oct. 29. That’s about the time the second team from Patterson deployed.
The men on that team said they didn’t see as much fire as the first, but they were in the middle of the devastation the fires wrought.
Patterson volunteer Jeff Fijman recalled seeing an elderly couple staring at the remains of what had been their home.
“The lady was just standing there,” he said.
While some were in shock after the destruction, others beamed with gratitude for what was saved.
Fijman and fellow firefighter Marty Greunke remembered some children who clamored for autographs from the emergency responders.
Fijman remembered a girl in particular who had a slew of questions about being a firefighter. When he introduced her to the woman on his team, her eyes lit up.
All the Patterson firefighters managed to return home safe and sound.
The last group came home Sunday. By Monday night, several were back at the fire station, sharing laughs while sitting around the much smaller fire in the barbecue.
Along with the firefighters, a Patterson-area American Red Cross volunteer went south to help with disaster relief. Joe Solis, who lives just east of the city limits, spent about a week in Del Mar, a small town north of San Diego, helping in a shelter for displaced residents.
“Anything in the compound that needed doing, I’d do,” Solis said.
Compared with the last large disaster Solis went to — Hurricane Wilma in Florida about two years ago — he said this one wasn’t too bad, because many of those displaced had the means to find other accommodations without Red Cross assistance.
He also said there were plenty of Red Cross volunteers from across the nation for disaster relief. Still, Solis pointed out that there weren’t many volunteers from Patterson, and he strongly encouraged anyone willing to help to join.
“If you really want to help,” Solis said, “don’t (complain). Just concentrate on helping other people.”