Lieutenant describes ‘walls of fire’ in NorCal inferno

By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Martinez Tribune

When Sam Hoffman arrived at the Butte fire in Calaveras County earlier this month, he saw a tremendous blaze that had leaped across several highways, tearing up and down the hilly countryside.

It reminded him of the Oakland Hills fire, the 1991 conflagration he also fought.

Hoffman, whose daughter, Virginia Hoffman-Mason, is a spokesperson for the Martinez Horsemen’s Association, arrived Sept. 10 and was there three days while much of that fire remained out of control.

“Power poles were going down, I saw walls of fire. It was unfortunate,” he said.

Loss of power was just one of the many hardships in fighting the fire, but it meant it was harder to resupply, he said. While in some states members of the public have been known to buy and give firefighters the supplies they need, Hoffman said in California that’s viewed as “gratuitous” and they can’t accept. However, the firefighters have regular suppliers and help from the Red Cross, among other sources.

Besides flames, the firefighters had to deal with fallen trees that became barricades.

“We had cleared eight to 10 miles of road,” he said. That was just to reach a fire battle line. When the firefighters returned down the same road, more trees had fallen. “We had to clear it all again with chain saws,” he said. “We started about 5:30 or 6 p.m., and we didn’t get to the station until 11 p.m.”

Fortunately, members of the local Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) had a hot dinner waiting for them.

The Butte fire, which erupted Sept. 9, has killed at least two people, burned nearly 71,000 acres, destroyed at least 545 homes and 356 outbuildings, damaged 42 others, threatened 6,400 structures and forced massive evacuation, according to CAL FIRE reports.

Hoffman, a lieutenant who is an on-call member of the Central Calaveras Fire District, was with the Berkeley Fire Department in 1991 when the Oakland hillside caught fire. He was with that department for 25 years before retiring three years ago, but remains on call, particularly for battling severe blazes. He now lives in Valley Springs.

He said the current fire and the one he fought 24 years ago have many similarities, although in the earlier blaze, firefighters were dealing with many houses built close together in a forest environment.

“A house went each 20 seconds,” he recalled. Much of the Butte fire, he said, “is along the same lines.”

Homeowners who created defensible spaces around their houses gave firefighters a better chance of saving those structures. Those who didn’t were the ones most likely to have lost their homes.

He reiterated the same recommendations that have been issued by CAL FIRE and locally by Contra Costa County Fire Protection District: Create a 100-foot defensible space around a building and remove anything flammable in that perimeter that gives a fire the chance “to ladder to the house,” he said.

That recommendation applies to home and property owners in Martinez, too, he said.

“We could save the ones we had a chance of saving,” Hoffman said. “We didn’t create the problem. You have to find the ones you can save, but there is only so much recourse.”

Firefighters’ top priority in fighting a fire is to save lives, he said. “Life safety is first, then property, then trees,” he listed.

To that end, he also urged Martinez residents and others to enroll in CERT classes. “Absolutely!” he said. CERT trains residents how to deal with earthquakes and other emergencies in recognition that in a disaster, firefighters, police and medical responders may not be available right away.

The program teaches people to be self-reliant for 72 to 96 hours, to have the right supplies on hand, to determine whether buildings are safe and to take care of their neighbors during that time, he said. “The fire service can only do so much,” he said.

Hoffman said he’s proud of his daughter, his former wife, Martinez Horsemen’s Association President Barbara Glenn and their organization, who with Hold Your Horses, sent supplies to evacuees and their pets and livestock.

“I saw a lot of horse and livestock trailers labeled ‘Evac Team,’” he said. He also spotted a friend from Clayton who brought supplies to the Calaveras Fairgrounds, an evacuation site that is better known for being the site of the Calaveras County Jumping Frog competition inspired by the Mark Twain story.

At the Butte fire, he and others battled flames that turned surroundings into ash some have described as “moon dust.”

“I call it complete combustion – everything just burned. That’s the most intense part of the fire.” He said he saw a lot of that type of ash where he worked.

Another aspect of wildfires is called a “canopy fire,” which moves through the tops of trees, turning them into charcoal, he said.

Firefighters were given 12-hour shifts, which they worked in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees. There was little wind to give them relief from the heat, but that also meant the low winds didn’t fan the flames, he said.

CAL FIRE took charge of the fire fight, he said. “We set up Incident Command,” he said. Each day, Operations would determine the goals of the day, since the fire was so massive.

Those goals were based on weather, where the fire had moved, and the available resources – planes for air attacks, bulldozers and people.

“You’re assigned a division, and you do the best you can,” he said.

Hoffman isn’t the only one with Martinez and Contra Costa County ties who has been battling wildfires, said Robert Marshall, Contra Costa County Fire District Fire Marshal.

Firefighters from El Cerrito and San Ramon have also been deployed to various wildfire assignments, he said.

Two have been on the fire lines in Washington, and others are fighting blazes in Humboldt County. A fire unit from Lafayette is in Lake County, helping battle the Valley Fire. That one is now considered the third worst fire in California history, behind the 2003 and 2007 wildfires in San Diego County, and has consumed 1,700 structures, Marshall said.

The Valley Fire has affected some in Martinez, said Martinez Unified School District Board Member Kathi McLaughlin.

“I have friends who lost their homes,” she said. One of those is a coworker. “This is very close to home.”

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