The Cambrian

‘Like a nuclear bomb had gone off’: SLO County firefighters recall helping during Carr Fire

Cambria Fire Department firefighters’ campsite during their mutual-aid service on the devastating Carr Fire near Redding in August.
Cambria Fire Department firefighters’ campsite during their mutual-aid service on the devastating Carr Fire near Redding in August.

An unimaginably gut-wrenching scene awaited residents returning to their charred neighborhoods and demolished homes after August’s Carr Fire near Redding.

The scene and residents’ stunned, distraught reactions tore at the hearts of first responders who were there to help, including a four-man team from Cambria Fire Department.

The firefighters — Capt. Johnathan Gibson, Engineer Michael Castellanos and firefighters Leonel Salas and Ben Shank — and engine 5791 were on a four-day mutual-aid assignment as part of a five-engine strike team from San Luis Obispo County.

On their 24-hour shift Aug. 11, the four men battled “a few hot spots here and there,” Gibson said, but “our job was repopulation, patrolling and mop-up. We were patrolling night and day.”

“It literally looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off,” Shank said. “It was a pure skeleton of a town. … It hit home how real this is, that these things happening to other people can happen to us, too. This can 100 percent happen to us in Cambria or anywhere on the Central Coast … especially with the climate and fire season getting long and longer.”

Salas added: “It was completely devastating, seeing that everything everyone had ever owned had been totally destroyed. You could see the devastation in their faces.”

The haunting, heart-breaking scenario was repeated so many times during the nearly six-week fire that consumed close to 230,000 acres, destroyed 1,079 residences, 22 commercial structures and 503 out buildings and damaged more than 275 other structures.

Three firefighters died battling the blaze.

Salas said the residents’ pain is hard to imagine and much harder to witness.

“You’ve built or bought this house, been there 10 or 20 years, and overnight, it’s gone. Basically, you don’t have anyplace else to go. You’re homeless. … We were going through it with them in a sense. To be more understanding of what they’re going through, we have to absorb their pain.” Castellanos said, “Unfortunately, the homes we were at were so leveled, there was just nothing left. The fire was so hot.”

He did hear about a few amazing saves, however.

“A lady put all her antique jewelry in her pool, and everything she put in the pool survived,” he said.

For Gibson, the most difficult moment was being with a family that had just returned to find their home totally destroyed. “They were emotionally beside themselves. Where do you go from here?

“We asked if there was anything we could do to help,” he said, “and they said, ‘No, we’re just trying to come up with a game plan on how to move forward … and we don’t know how.’”

cambria professional firefighters local 4625 to Carr Fire SLOCO Strike Team 1471A c.jpg
From left, Cambria Fire Department Engineer Michael Castellanos, Captain Jack Gibson and firefighters Ben Shank and Leonel Salas brought haunting memories home with them after helping to battle the Carr Fire near Redding in August. Courtesy photo

Luck of the draw

Castellanos described the Carr Fire area as “very hilly with very thick woods … very dry. The terrain (much like Cambria’s) shows how much the wind affects the fire.”

Destruction wreaked by the fire was “the luck of the draw,” Castellanos said. In his years as a seasonal Cal Fire firefighter, he said, “I’ve been on plenty of fires,” some of them in that same area, “and I’ve never seen the devastation like that before. This one was so different … how fast the fire went through … canyon-switching winds, how nature moved through the canyons.”

Shank said nothing in his eight years as a firefighter had the same impact that being at the Carr Fire did: “It was the first time I’d seen a fire of that magnitude … knowing that this was a real threat … I came back and took inventory on my own house.”

It was something he hadn’t before.

“In some areas, the fire was burning so hot and fast that the leaves on the trees” weren’t all burned off, Salas said, but instead “got ‘frozen’ in the direction that the fire was running.”

All the malevolent forces were aligned against the area during the Carr Fire, Castellanos said.

“The wind, weather, the heat. It was just insane,” he said.

And the weather can be personally dangerous.

“On our first day there, it was 110 degrees, and our old engine has no air conditioning,” he said. “Wearing a couple of layers, it gets brutal with all our gear (on). It felt like a waterfall (of sweat) going down my back.”

Nevertheless, Salas said, “it’s a privilege to go out of our norm, out of our comfort zone” on mutual-aid duty to help those who need it most.

Read Next

The home front

The Cambria department now is “on the list to respond to mutual aid statewide through fire season,” according to Capt. Emily Torlano.

She said the Cambria team relieved another engine crew that had to return to its SLO County home base because of a separate emergency.

Cambria Fire’s first-out medic engine remained in town, staffed around the clock by two fulltime personnel on site, she said, and the second-out engine is staffed with four personnel on call from home.

She said the mutual-aid “firefighters’ pay and overtime costs are reimbursed” to the Cambria department “at a rate higher than their actual salaries, so the district doesn’t incur additional costs.”

Instead, “it is revenue for the district,” she said.

Torlano said mutual-aid assignments “allow us to do what we love and join our brothers/sisters on the frontlines.”

The firefighters also get valuable experience they can’t get any other way, she said.

“We see firsthand the types of fire behavior and other conditions we are facing,” she added.

Two wildfires from 2018 – the Carr Fire and Mendocino Complex – have joined the list of California’s largest recorded fires by acreage. The top seven have scorched over 1.7 million acres, all since 2003.

‘Don’t wait for the last minute’

The firefighters also were struck by “the similarities between Cambria and the Redding area,” Gibson said. “Steep, mountainous terrain, pine trees.”

Access in Cambria can be more difficult, with its often narrow streets.

As for lessons learned to share with North Coast residents, Gibson said, “take defensible space seriously. Don’t wait for the last minute to do it.

Put it on the front end of your to-do list, because it can be the difference between your house making it and not making it.”

In those areas where narrow side yards and small home sites next to larger wooded parcels of land can make it difficult to achieve mandated clearances, “be a good neighbor,” he said. “Make sure you’re looking out for them, too. Collaborate as neighbors to make your neighborhood safe.”

He urged Cambrians to be ready to evacuate early, know more than one route out and be prepared for slow or stopped traffic along the way.

Another way the Carr Fire/Redding area is similar to Cambria, the firefighters said, was the remarkable community spirit, support and resiliency.

“It was pretty overwhelming how appreciative all the people were,” Shank said.

Castellanos said the attitude was “so open, positive, caring and appreciative for the first responders … a lot of the people lost their homes, but they were so grateful for the work that was done. They’d say, ‘My house is not worth your life. Don’t risk your life.’”

“As my wife likes to say,” Gibson said, “When we as people come together for a common good and overcome the disasters, ‘beauty can come from the ashes.’”

Workers remove vegetation along the side of Cambria Pines Road in Cambria as part of a Cal Fire's wildfire management program. The program in SLO County is paid for through funds from PG&E

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune