Nineteen firefighters from the regional fire protection districts and departments in the Mother Lode were deployed by the state as Task Force 4209 to assist with fire suppression efforts for the Camp Fire in Butte County. A half-dozen other Mother Lode firefighters from regional departments were also deployed to the area outside of Task Force 4209.

Task Force 4209:

Bill Becker, Battalion Chief and Task Force Leader, Turlock Fire Department

Brittan Gregory, Task Force Leader Trainee, Sonora Fire Department

Daniel Wegner, Firefighter, Columbia Fire Department

Chris Mojica, Captain, Columbia Fire Department

Michael Weiland, Engineer, Columbia Fire Department

Neil Gamez, Captain, Twain Harte Fire Department

Terron Tidaback, Intern Operator, Twain Harte Fire Department

James Walker, Intern Operator, Twain Harte Fire Department

Patrick McCaleb, Intern Firefighter, Twain Harte Fire Department

James Klyn, Captain, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District

David Straub, Firefighter, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District

Ben Garcia, Firefighter, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District

Jeff Santi, Captain, Tuolumne Fire Protection District

Brandon Ohler, Firefighter, Tuolumne Fire Protection District

Patrick Cohen, Engineer, Tuolumne Fire Protection District

Riley Derichsweiler, Firefighter, Tuolumne Fire Protection District

Ryan Carpenter, Engineer, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Brandon Contreras, Engineer, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

John Schwitalla, Engineer, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Additional Resources:

Joel Lafayette, Fire Line EMT, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District

Chris Tedder, Engineer, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Kioni Sodaria, Firefighter, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Michael Halligan, Firefighter, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Lance Nomil, Firefighter, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

Jerry Zellers, Firefighter, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District

The local firefighters called to duty in the Camp Fire say they had never seen devastation so complete and so widespread.

Vast swaths of wildland destroyed, burned and displaced livestock, and entire neighborhoods reduced to piles of ash.

Even upon their return home on Tuesday, some of them were uneasy about the most destructive wildfire in California history and the ominous parallels of the town of Paradise to the hub of Tuolumne County: Sonora.

“The section that we were working was as if you took Sonora and burnt it to the ground,” said Brandon Ohler, a firefighter with the Tuolumne Fire Protection District. “It looks like home. You think about the people and how hard it's going to be for that town to come back. You think about how it could be our area and people we know. It's just crazy.”

The magnitude was staggering, Ohler, 23, said. And the clear associations with Sonora, including an “identical fuel model” and similar elevation, made their observations of the destruction even more overwhelming.

“I'm looking forward getting to be home and see family and everything. I’m glad it’s coming to an end, it’s just really sad for all the people that lost everything,” he said. “I don't think any of us, even our captain with 22 years experience, had ever seen anything like that.”

Ohler, like all other 18 members of Task Force 4209 — a group of firefighters culled from Tuolumne, Calaveras and Stanislaus counties and sent to Chico on Nov. 8 — returned home after approximately 12 days proud of their contribution to the fire suppression effort.

Though Task Force 4209 would be home with their families, the destruction would be a constant reminder that thousands of people could not go home.

“At times it was quite somber just because of what was going on around us and the situation we were in. We are there to do our job, so we tried not to get too hung up on that,” said Daniel Wegner, 23, a firefighter with the Columbia Fire Department.

Task Force 4209 was deployed to the incident command center at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, among approximately 5,500 other firefighters at the base camp at one point, Wegner said.

At the time, the total destruction was not known or complete. It was still more than a week before President Donald Trump visited the incident command, accompanied by Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

Task Force 4209 — a mix of younger and more experienced personnel from Sonora Fire Department, Columbia Fire Department, Twain Harte Fire Department, Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District, Tuolumne Fire Protection District, Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District, and commanded by Bill Becker, Task Force Leader and Battalion Chief from Turlock Fire Department — was deployed to a stretch of rural wildland called Yankee Hill on the outskirts of Highway 70, southeast of the town of Paradise.

“It was definitely something that we’ve never seen before,” said Capt. James Klyn of the Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District.

The group was tasked with the structure protection of ranch homes down two-track dirt roads, located high on a ridge above nearby flames. Working alongside Cal Fire inmate crews and bulldozers that cleared the road of downed trees, each of the engines from the various departments were essentially assigned a house to protect on the ridgeline, Ohler said.

They were up all night, extinguishing spot fires on the lawn and on the backside of the homes, monitoring the fire runs that drove uphill. The high winds blew up from the Grizzly Creek drainage behind the houses, Becker said, raining the area with torched embers.

“That fire was still uncontained on that side of fire at that point,” Becker said. “This was pretty rough country and nighttime firefighting. We were in a lot of country we hadn't seen in the day time.”

It was only a few days into their deployment, but the camaraderie of the task force was burgeoning.

“We came from different departments, even different counties. Teamwork happens quickly when you're working together, eating together and sleeping in the same trailer,” Becker said. “The firefighters consider it a service calling. They are public servants and they want to go up there and help so they were also glad to be available to do whatever they could.”

In the next days, the personalities of the task force members — described by Becker as dedicated, persistent and compassionate — were beginning to show through the smoke.

Brittan Gregory, the Task Force leader trainee from the Sonora Fire Department, proved himself to be an able organizer, Becker said.

Klyn, “the animal lover,” was most shocked by the burned, displaced, dehydrated and often dead animals, Becker added.

“Along the way, we started doing more or less animal control,” Klyn said. “Some livestock had area to roam, but no one was out there to feed or water them.”

Some animals were dead from lack of water or food. The group was so upset by what they confronted that they “kind of made that our mission” to locate the survivors to provide them with some kind of shelter or sustenance, Klyn said.

A local property owner with a corral took in a lost cat and a burned goat, and contacted a veterinarian to treat them. Neil Gamez, a captain with the Twain Harte Fire Department, bought a bag of feed at Tractor Supply and delivered it to the family, Becker said. The woman at the house wept.

“Everybody remained positive through the whole situation. They went into these areas without hesitation,” Becker said.

Throughout their time in the Yankee Hill area, the group shuttled as many animals as they could to safety, and left bowls of food and tubs of water out for others left behind.

From there, the group was deployed north along Highway 70 to Concow, northeast of Paradise, where Klyn said investigators researched a “second fire origin.”

“We weren’t allowed to go down there,” Klyn said.

Near Concow, the group conducted patrols, corralled more animals, and repaired pens for chickens and goats. Later, at Big Bend Road southeast of Paradise, the task force continued to feed and water animals, and reported the lost and injured to local officials.

A couple days before the task force was relieved of duty, they were transferred to a subsection of Paradise and saw the destruction firsthand.

“It was very shocking. It was like a bomb went off. It was like an apocalypse. Almost everything was gone,” Klyn said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I wish I could unsee.”

The town was unrecognizable. The team extinguished hot spots, but Klyn said they were barred from entering homes or any of the few structures that remained upright.

In the vast wasteland of debris, Klyn said any human remains would have been difficult to spot. Search and rescue personnel marked homes that were checked for bodies and survivors with a broad X. A numerical system accompanied the X, indicating to the number of bodies believed to been incinerated in the homes.

“There was some somberness there because, just everywhere we went, there was destruction and devastation. When you're surrounded by that constantly it’s sobering,” Becker said.

The scene was traumatic for some of the younger and less experienced firefighters.

“I've been in the fire service for almost six years now. I was on the Butte Fire,” Ohler said. “This was just something else. Our last day on the line we were in the town of Paradise, in the subsection of it, just seeing the search and rescue team searching for bodies.”

Most of the firefighters had little, if any, contact with victims, they said. But even as the group returned home, those who lost everything — and the firefighters still in the area — remained on their minds.

Joel Lafayette, a fire line EMT from the Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District, and less than a half dozen firefighters from the Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District in Strike Team 4061C remained after the return of Task Force 4209.

Part way through the mission, one water tender from the Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District switched out with another.

“I think we did good work. We did what we were supposed to,” Wegner said. “We were successful in the jobs we were given. But it's always going to be there. I'm always going to think about it.”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.



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