CAROL POGASH, The New York Times, July 7, 2008
Elk — When he spotted a small fire two weeks ago atop a steep hill outside this blocklong town, Charlie Acker, 57, the president of the local school board and a volunteer firefighter, jumped inside his stubby red 1965 fire truck and, with a skid and a prayer, drove up the nearly vertical incline to check out the situation.
Knowing that every other volunteer firefighter in this community of 100 residents was battling a larger blaze nearby, he used his cellphone to call his wife. She roused a crew of young kayakers who cater to tourists in this picturesque old logging town at the edge of the Pacific, some 140 miles north of San Francisco, and joined Mr. Acker on the line.
The state fire agency, CalFire, had promised to send a helicopter, but just as Mr. Acker was waiting for the whump-whump of the blades, it was diverted, he said, “to a higher rent district” in another county. When he radioed for more firefighters and an air tanker with fire retardant, he was sent 13 state prison inmates and told he was on his own.
For two weeks that has been the case here in Mendocino County, known for its majestic redwoods, prized grapevines and pungent marijuana plants. Resources have been stretched thin since lightning ignited about 1,100 fires throughout the drought-ridden region.
While the few cities in this county have paid firefighters, in the small communities that dot this region, fires are fought mostly by trained volunteers.
To fight the 123 fires that have been burning over 41,000 thickly wooded, mountainous acres, there was only one helicopter, no air tanker with fire retardant and no one tending to 17 of the fires. But help began arriving on Sunday: 15 helicopters, 3 air tankers and the promise of 200 National Guard soldiers. Tracy Boudreaux, the public information officer here for CalFire, said that with 1,700 personnel already working on the fire lines, the county could use twice that and more fire trucks and water tenders. The fires are 45 percent contained with only two fires unattended.
When the lightning fires struck in June, Mr. Acker said, “The entire governmental system broke down; we had to rely on ourselves and our neighbors.”
Residents ran tabs at local stations to pay for gasoline for fire engines. Merchants placed tall jars on counters seeking contributions. A restaurateur offered firefighters free meals.
The owner of a hardware store refused payment from volunteer firefighters for crucial supplies. When a local radio station called for money to help defray firefighting costs, people descended on the Redwood Drive-In, known for its malts, shakes and curly fries, and donated more than $4,000.
Landscapers whacked and carted away brush around houses free of charge. A caterer fed 150 volunteer firefighters daily. One market delivered submarine sandwiches to the weary workers, while residents baked gooey cakes and made quinoa salads. A fire chief’s wife grilled steak fajitas for a crew of inmates. Another woman delivered tinctures and balms to firefighters to soothe sore muscles and dry throats. On a map in the Boonville firehouse, a sign offered free massages.
When the blazes broke out, Leggett, population 300, had more fires than firefighters until an unsanctioned call went out on local radio and some 40 people with rakes and shovels began showing up at the firehouse every morning.
Residents expressed both pride and shock that they mostly had to fend for themselves. “This community of rugged individualists pulling together is part of the reason we love where we live,” said Deborah Cahn, who with her family owns Navarro Vineyards. “But isn’t this what government is supposed to do?”
On June 21, traffic on CalFire’s Web site was so heavy that Ms. Boudreaux, the public information officer, could not log on to order equipment. “You got what you got,” she said she was told when she called. “Nothing else is coming.”
Ms. Boudreaux said: “With the number of fires in Northern California, the resources were limited. It has been phenomenal that we have avoided potential catastrophic disasters to life and structures.” Just two homes have been destroyed in the fires.
“This is not a normal situation for CalFire, one of the largest fire organizations in the world,” she continued. The lack of resources has been “shocking across the board,” she said.
Ms. Cahn said that when she spotted smoke near her ridge, the 911 operator told her no resources were available. It took three days before firefighters were available to find and fight the blaze. Bob Roland, a 63-year-old retired aerospace executive and volunteer firefighter died Thursday, apparently of a heart attack, while folding hoses at that fire.
Colin Wilson, the fire chief in Boonville, described managing about seven fires with 30 firefighters working continuously for several days. “We knew we had no resources,” he said.
Throughout the siege, firefighters have had to attend to medical emergencies unrelated to the fires. When he was off the mountain, Mr. Acker said he helped a woman who thought she was suffering a stroke. Instead, he said, she was having a strong reaction to a birthday cake laced with marijuana.
Michael Maynard, a fire captain with CalFire who was checking on his parents’ home in a rural development built a few decades ago, said he jumped through flames to save four residents, one in capri pants and flip-flops, who were fighting a fire on their own.
“It was a little hairy,” Mr. Maynard said. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
Larry Tunzi, 49, a cattle rancher and volunteer fire chief in Comptche, a nook where everyone knows your name, stood on a ridge-top recently and counted 30 fires to be fought by his crew, which included a carpenter, a butcher, a nurse, computer programmers and Wally Stubbs, a 70-year-old retired chief operating officer of a manufacturing company. Many ended up working 60 hours on the line without going home.
With two other volunteer firefighters, Patty McCummings, 53, a real estate agent, spent one night with little water and only hand tools fighting back flames that jumped a line on a ridge that “was steeper than a cow’s face,” Ms. McCummings said. Mr. Tunzi called their efforts “the last stand at Tank 4 Gulch.”
During a break, Mr. Stubbs said, “I’ve never been prouder of working with any people than I was with this group.”
As David Severn, part of an all-volunteer ambulance crew in Boonville, said, “Fending for yourself in this community does not mean you’re standing alone.”