Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. After battling the Lake County wildfires, Troy Buzzell knows this all too well.
Buzzell was one of six Santa Clara firefighters who helped quell the blazes that tore through northern California from September to October, consuming more than 76,000 acres along the way. In his 10 years as a firefighter, he had never experienced a situation where it seemed everywhere he turned, he saw himself.
Santa Clara sent five engines, as part of the state’s master mutual aid plan, to help get the fires under control. Buzzell was the engineer assigned to engine 197 that made the two-hour drive to Middletown.
He was already exhausted from a long night of readiness exercises in San Jose, part of a region wide effort from San Francisco to Monterey called Urban Shield. The effort was designed to test how departments deal with large-scale incidents. At the exercise, his team joined a team from Napa County Fire Department.
“They came back and told us four guys from their helicopter attack crew were burned over during the drill,” he said. “That immediately had a close-to-home impact because we are working alongside many of the firefighters that had their friends that were injured in that fire, right off the bat.”
Santa Clara Fire Department Battalion Chief Casey Potts said everybody knew the firestorm would be massive. The state had already drawn down its resources, leaving it to the county chiefs to pull resources to deal with the inferno that would thunder across the valley, razing buildings in its wake.
In his 22 years as a firefighter, Potts said he never saw a fire of this scale.
Both Buzzell and Potts remember the drive to Middletown similarly: all business, no chit-chat or idle conversation. No time to let the gravity of the situation set in. But there was no doubt they understood the magnitude of the fire. Potts said they could smell it 20 miles outside Middletown.
As they neared the site, Buzzell recalls the myriad of abandoned vehicles – some still ablaze – hundreds of downed power lines, collapsed telephone poles and disintegrated transformers. He said he had no idea PG&E had so many trucks. It looked like a field of blue in places.
When they arrived at the sheriff’s checkpoint on Highway 29, Potts said the only information the got was “good luck.” When they finally reached the Middletown city line, they saw ember showers raining across their windshields and propane tanks exploding.
“The entire town was on fire. It was fricking amazing,” Potts said. “It fried that whole town.”
The team immediately began making assessments, doing what Buzzell and Potts called structure triage — determining which buildings are defensible and moving brush and other flammable debris away from them and dousing the building to protect it from the fire.
One of the most vexing aspects of fire, Potts said, was its unpredictability, He described fires the way one might describe a mythological beast or a familiar nemesis; saying a blaze usually has a head and follows a predictable trajectory, making it easier to battle. Add to that low visibility with all the downed power lines and unfamiliarity with the landscape, and things became pretty dicey.
“You can only see what’s in front of you … think about it like driving in fog except you are driving in smoke,” Potts said. “At one point you might have a quarter-mile visibility, and then you make the corner and have 15 feet.”
For Buzzell, the 10-day stand had a more haunting ring, one that stood apart from all the other fires where he’d been deployed. Middlefield seemed like a nice quiet town, the kind of place he could see himself retiring. So, when he encountered a man who had lost contact with his wife because her cell phone battery drained while she went to get medication, as a husband and father of two, Buzzell empathized. The look of relief on the man’s face when Buzzell and others helped find her was one he won’t forget.
One aspect of the deployment that hit him like a gut-shot was seeing dead animals the fire had forced people to leave behind. He recalls a field littered with horse corpses.
As an owner of two dogs, a cat and two horses, Buzzell said his heart went out to people who had to leave their pets because he knows that while insurance can cover losing a house, it can’t replace pets. Although he didn’t envision having to care for chickens, ducks, turtles, and turkeys, he was happy to do it; he would want someone to do the same for his pets.
Buzzell said he started to view the fire as a natural disaster, comparing it to Hurricane Katrina. Despite the outpouring of thanks from people, Potts said was hard to feel good when so many people had lost so much.
“You feel terrible that they lost everything,” Potts said. “They lost everything, and they are thanking you. That is a crappy feeling.”
It wasn’t just civilians who lost a lot.
Buzzell said he spoke with several firefighters whose homes the fire had destroyed. One of them lived in an apartment complex right across the street from the fire station, and he had to fight the fire from his home. Fire ravaged another firefighter’s home, burning it right down to the foundation. A fire captain returned home to Middletown to discover his home burnt to the foundation and his sister’s and parents’ homes burnt.
Buzzell finds himself wondering how the rebuilding is going. He plans on returning in a year or two. And while the signs that read “Thank you firefighters” the citizens had put up just after the fire will likely be gone by then, the impression they left on him will remain.
“While their community is going to have a long road ahead of them to rebuild, knowing they are going to have the support that reaches a lot farther than their community is important for them,” he said. “They are going to have an easier time accomplishing this task with the support of others.”