May is Wildfire Awareness Month, and this week, May 5-11, is Wildfire Awareness Week. In light of that, here is how three of Auburn’s agencies provided support to California during what has now been recorded as the state’s deadliest wildfire season.
In November of 2018 California experienced the most destructive wildfires of its history. The Campfire and Woolsey Fire destroyed approximately 250,000 acres of land and claimed the lives of at least 89 individuals. Three Auburn agencies traveled to California to support the battle to put out the wildfires, and the long road to recovery once the ash settled.
Washington Strike Team 5
Four members of Valley Regional Fire Authority (VRFA) joined members of a Washington Strike Team to support the efforts in California. Captain Rick Olson (Station 34), Firefighter Kyle Fisher (Station 34), Firefighter Terry Robinson (Station 32), and Firefighter Aaron Lewis (Station 34) took a reserve fire engine from Station 34 and left for California on November 10th, 2018. The team returned nine days later on the night of the 19th.
VRFA was a part of Washington Strike Team 5. Their team consisted of five engines and one Strike Team Leader. The leader was from Eastside Fire and Rescue. Shoreline Fire Department, East Jefferson County Fire, Snoqualmie Fire Department, and Eastside Fire and Rescue all provided engines.
The Strike Team arrived in California on November 11th and “were assigned to the Woolsey Fire,” said Captain Olson. “Our Strike Team worked in Ventura until November 15th. We were then reassigned to an area known as Sutter Hill. This area was experiencing weather conditions [like] those [before] Camp Fire in Paradise. California Fire Crews were spread thin across the numerous fires. Our role was to help provide a rapid response to any brush or structure fires. The Strike Team was deployed to staff Fire Stations in the local area.”
Fighting the Woosley Fire
When initially deployed, the Strike Team believed they would be assisting with the Camp Fire. “Enroute to that incident we were notified that the Woolsey Fire had had some explosive growth and was becoming a very large incident, that would now be our destination,” explained Olson. “These large incidents are very dynamic and often change quickly; it is important that responders remain flexible while these incidents are developing.”
Olson explained that the team was assigned to a development located within the fire area. “[100-150 homes were] threatened by fire the night before. [The flames damaged some of the homes in the area.] The infrastructure was severely damaged as well. We spent the next 24 hours in this area watching for flare-ups and rapidly addressing them. There were homeowners in the development that stayed with their homes. They were very thankful for our presence in the area.”
Reflecting on the response to the fires, Olson remarked on the departments represented, “there were strike teams from all over the Western United States. In the morning briefings, it was truly impressive to see all of the equipment from the local departments within California and from cities and states from as far away as Texas.”
Supporting CalFire After Woosley
Washington Strike Team 5 was demobilized from the Woolsey Fire several days later. The Strike Team was reassigned to an area outside of Sacramento, known as Sutter Hill. “California Fire Crews were spread very thin across the state, and a red flag warning with high winds was issued for the area. This means that if a fire were to happen, it will spread very rapidly and could possibly have devastating consequences,” said Olson.
“If the Puget Sound area ever experiences something as massive as a wildfire or earthquake the resources will be there to help.”
“Several of the California Firefighters had been at their station for several days with no relief. One of the firefighters had been there for over two weeks (he has a wife and two small children),” continued Olson. The Washington Strike Team “was to assist the local fire departments with any and all incidents that involved brush fires. The strike team responded to several incidents with Calfire. The largest was a two-acre fire at about 2 am that was threatening several homes. Crews worked alongside the locals to quickly contain the fire and keep most structures from getting damaged. There was a small shed that burned. This shed was the house of a very large tortoise, luckily even the tortoise made it out and survived.”
When stationed in the Sutter Hill area, Washington Strike Team 5 worked directly with CalFire. “We were immersed in their culture and helped with all aspects of their day. From station maintenance, rig checks, equipment maintenance and repair, grounds maintenance and meal prep.”
Firefighting in Wildfires
Olson has been with VRFA for 20 years and volunteered for King County Fire District 44 for three years. He began training for wildland firefighting in the late ’90s. “After the early 2000s my training in wildland decreased until 2015 when we started training and deploying as a resource again,” Olson explained. “This period of inactivity was largely due to funding and other issues that made it difficult for cities and fire districts to commit resources to state mobilizations for wildfires.”
“At the most basic level there really is no difference [in fighting wildfires versus house or urban fires],” said Olson. “The primary goal is to extinguish the fire to keep it from damaging any additional property or injuring people (citizens and firefighters). The tactics to accomplish this goal is what makes the difference.”
VRFA has deployed crews to assist in wildfire firefighting within Washington on many occasions. This was, however, the first deployment out of state for Olson and this crew. “The VRFA has recently signed an EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) agreement that allows resources to respond out of state as long as it does not take resources away from being able to protect our citizens properly,” said Olson. “This deployment was the third time that our wildland trained firefighters have helped at a significant fire in California since 2017.”
A New Definition For “Career Fire”
Richard Cardova, CalFire Information Officer, shared that he thought he’d seen his career fire with the 2015 Valley Fire. However, he now states that fires have been getting more destructive every year since, and the Woolsey Fire is now his career fire.
“The recent fire activity in California is going to make a lot of first responders rethink what their career fire is,” remarked Olson. “The fire conditions as random as they were down in Malibu can make a lot of difference to what the definition is. The Woolsey Fire was drastic for sure, especially for those that lost homes. The Camp Fire in Paradise destroyed an entire town and took numerous lives.
“Personally, being “first in” on those fires would have made me believe that they were career fires. I can only imagine what the crews of both the Woolsey Fire and the Camp Fire experienced. Definitely a life-changing experience for them. The unfortunate reality is that these fires will continue to get larger and make more “career fires” for more responders. Even the VRFA is experiencing differences in brush fires. The large fire that occurred on the West Hill in Auburn last August is an example of this,” said Olson.
Returning with Reassurance
As a career firefighter, Olson knows that every shift, every deployment – every call offers a chance to learn something new. “This deployment gave us the opportunity to learn how other agencies within King County address training for wildland incidents. Working together with these agencies will make incidents run smoother, if and when we get to work together again,” said Olson.
Olson also returned to Washington with reassurance should Auburn ever need assistance. “The impressive response from all the fire departments from around the west coast can be reassuring that if the Puget Sound area ever experiences something as massive as a wildfire or earthquake the resources will be there to help.”
Feeding First Responder’s Body and Soul
As VRFA battled vicious blazes in Malibu, teams in Northern California were at war with the ferocious Camp Fire. Knowing first responders will fight until their tank is empty, the Soup Ladies ensure those tanks are refilled with a wholesome home cooked meal that replenishes the body and soul.
Led by Ginger Passarelli, or Mama Ginger to many, the Soup Ladies are a unique organization that provides quality meals to first responders. As all volunteers have proper background clearance, the Soup Ladies can go into the thick of a disaster area to serve the first responders as they work.
In November, Passarelli and fellow Soup Lady Heidi Agun dispatched to Northern California. They served those working the Camp Fire, and processing Paradise. “If there was no reason for you to be in Paradise, you did not get to get in there,” said Passarelli. “We never went to Paradise, but we were feeding those in the emergency operations center, dispatch center, and assorted other police and fire departments.”
Setting Up Soup Ladies Operations
A local church, New Life Assembly of God, opened their commercial kitchen for the Soup Ladies to use. For the safety of those being served, only those with proper background checks can assist in the kitchen. Not knowing anyone’s credentials, Passarelli couldn’t accept volunteer cooks. This meant the two ladies served 2,000 meals in seven days.
Two members of the church did the dishes and cleaned to give Passarelli and Agun some relief. “It was such a blessing to have them do that, truly,” said Passarelli.
To keep up with the many tired and hungry first responders they were feeding; the Soup Ladies worked at least two meals ahead. “Most of the stuff was served in disposable hotel pans. Two of the places had stoves, so we would make soup for them. We would take it and put it in the kitchen and bring bread and salad to go with it. So, every meal was different.”
A Deputy delivered food to the 50-60 responders working in Paradise. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to sit down, meaning food had to be bite-sized. “One time we made roasted pork loin, with a raspberry sauce and roasted potatoes. However, we had to cut the meat up for them, like Moms on steroids. But they got a nice hot meal out of it!” Passarelli laughed.
On the day the Soup Ladies were leaving, some of the Paradise responders were coming into the Emergency Operating Center. “They asked, ‘are you the ones who have been cooking for us?’ One of the gals literally was crying, because she couldn’t believe she got a hot meal in the middle of the disaster. It was appreciated so much,” recalled Passarelli.
A Staggering Number of People Impacted
Speaking about her experience, Passarelli described the impact of serving and witnessing the environment around where the Soup Ladies served. “I’ve been to big, big fires: the Carlton Complex Fire and the Okanogan Complex Fire – two summers in a row. You see a lot of people who have lost everything when their homes burn down. I’ve never been to [a fire] where almost 15,000 homes burned down – ever.”
“When you see the people, who were a part of the mass exodus from Paradise when you look in people’s eyes and they have the thousand-mile gaze – they’re in shock,” described Passarelli. “They know to put one foot in front of another, but it’s such a huge amount of pain. That you’ve lost your home, you’ve lost everything. Maybe you’ve lost all your vehicles or a loved one. There was so much of it.
“It wasn’t one, or two or ten people. They estimated that 50,000 people were evacuated and displaced. That’s a staggering number,” said Passarelli.
As a Chaplain for the Auburn Police Department, Passarelli has first-hand experience with engaging those experiencing traumas. “You can talk with them, comfort them and let them know they’re not forgotten. And sometimes it goes into their heart, and sometimes it doesn’t. It just depends on where they are at(sic). But we can always try to do our best to bring comfort to people.”
In 2018 the Soup Ladies went on 42 missions and served 14,400 meals. Before going to California, the Soup Ladies served those responding to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. They only go out of state one or two times a year, and never go to an incident without an invitation.
To help ensure they can go on as many missions as possible, the Soup Ladies is comprised of nearly 80 volunteers. However, if no volunteers are available, the Soup Ladies will be unable to assist the requesting agency. If you’d like to donate to help the Soup Ladies get a new truck, click here to donate!
Auburn Animal Control Supports Butte County
In the aftermath of the wildfires, Auburn Police Department Animal Control officer Sarah Cattaneo traveled south to provide much-needed support. Working with the Gridley Large Animal Shelter at the Gridley Fairgrounds, Cattaneo helped manage the intake and care of the animals that survived the wildfires within Butte County. The support Cattaneo provided was so valuable; she was made management.
Cattaneo first traveled to Butte County on November 19th, 2018. After her first nine-day trip, she returned twice more before the end of 2018. Cattaneo spent ten days in California at the end of December, returning home only for Christmas before driving back down the next day.
Once the county found a temporary replacement for Cattaneo, DeDe Sepuobeda, the two switched off covering the shelter. Cattaneo split her time between Auburn and California. “If I [wasn’t there] DeDe literally [wouldn’t] get time off,” said Cattaneo.
“It’s a little rough not being home for long periods sometimes,” Cattaneo admitted. However, having a strong support system in place helped. Knowing things at home were being taken care of while she was gone allowed her to continue supporting those in need. “It was nice on Christmas vacation that [my son] could come down and see where I’ve been helping,” said Cattaneo. “None of the real gnarly stuff, but some of the animals and people I’d been talking about.”
The Temporary Shelter at the Gridley Fairgrounds
The animals under the guardianship of the Gridley Animal Shelter were all survivors of the wildfires. “The highest numbers, while I was there as management, was around 900 animals,” said Cattaneo. By early January the numbers at the temporary shelter were down to just under 300 animals. The remaining animals were mostly birds. “260 chickens, 58 ducks, seven goats, five sheep, and one pigeon,” said Cattaneo.
At the peak, 15-20 vets and their technicians were at the fairground shelter daily. Most of the care they provided was burn treatments. The California Association of Equine Practitioners provided supplies and care for the nearly 260 horses in the shelter’s care. Injuries included burns, cuts, a T-post impale, and a horse that was gored by a bull in the aftermath of the fires.
Other organizations also lent aid to the recovery, including the USDA, CDFA, and SPCA. Farriers were also on site, volunteering their services for the horses, goats, and donkeys. “UC Davis stepped up and offered $2,000 per animal in veterinary care,” shared Cattaneo. The hospital also took the worst animals to their hospital for treatment.
Recognizing the magnitude of the wild fire’s destruction and impact, the State of California maintained that if a human shelter was open, the animal shelters would also remain open. Cattaneo explained that the Governor’s office also checked in daily, to help ensure proper paperwork was moving through the system to get the shelter what it needed from supporting agencies.
Supporting the Animals However They Can
There were four animal shelters in addition to the large animal shelter in the area Cattaneo volunteered. One was run by Humane Society of the United States, while Animal Control mainly ran others. Working within the system, these shelters cared for the recovered animals and did everything possible to reunite them with their owners.
In addition to the animal shelters, some animals sheltered in place. Feed stations were set up for these animals. Groups, like the Army National Guard, went out with Animal Control to monitor and fill these stations. “There’s a guy who raised hawks. So, he had a bunch of hawks. His fence was burned, so we ended up with a bunch of his sheep and llamas and other stuff. But he didn’t want us to touch his hawks. He was fine with us feeding them, but didn’t want us to move them,” explained Cattaneo.
60 days after the fires the shelters began working with local rescue groups to hold the animals, giving further time for owners to find their pets. The recovered animals in Butte County were microchipped, assisting in tracking the animals’ journey. “There are people out there saying ‘oh they’re going to go through and euthanize everything.’ No. We’re not [doing that]. No one wants to do that,” said Cattaneo. “People don’t get into animal control and then do that.”
Because the recovered animals have potential owners, they could not legally be fostered. If an owner wished to have their pet fostered by a volunteer, the agreement would be entirely between the two individuals; removing any liability from the county.
In addition to the domestic animals treated, animal control assisted several wild animals injured in the fires. Several wild horses were taken to a large animal vet for care, where the shoot system was utilized due to their untamed nature. Wild birds, such as hawks, were also cared for in the aftermath.
While these shelters worked in organized methods, unnamed rescue groups or individuals would also enter the area, attempting to help. As there was no way of documenting or tracking the animals these groups trapped, this often complicated recovery efforts.
No animals transferred from shelters to out of state were recovered pets from the fires. That cannot be said for those trapped by unmonitored groups or individuals. “The county had no control over that. That’s essentially theft of an animal. It’s out of the goodness of their heart, but it’s still theft, “said Cattaneo. “If someone told you they have a brown and black tabby with a white spot on the chest, and you track and take a black and white cat – you cannot do that. You were told you could track that specific cat. No one said you could go on someone’s property and take this other cat. That’s theft. And you’re taking it out of the area. You’re not giving these people a chance to claim their pets.”
How Could They Leave Their Pets?
The rapid pace of the fires forced many to leave their pets. Some residents had a mere five minutes, some less, to evacuate. “There was one woman who had over 100 chickens and some ten goats. They were more of a project for her children. She had to leave. She said that if they had waited five more minutes, they would have been dead. Two more minutes and they would have had to jump in the lake as the animals did,” said Cattaneo.
“In that snap judgment,” Cattaneo continued, “you grab what you can. You take what animals you can. But if your cat is hiding under the bed, you can’t go back and search for it. You’re going to die.”
Cattaneo described owners who came into the shelter looking for pets that may have survived. “I never knew how much a chicken could mean to someone until a lady came in, and Cluck-cluck was all she had left,” said Cattaneo. “She lost her house, everything – but she had Cluck-cluck.”
“I had another woman come in who had lost all of her cattle, her sheep, her dogs, and her cats. Just her and her immediate family made it out. She was there looking for her two horses,” Cattaneo described the woman’s expression, “you could just tell, looking at her, there was nothing. It was just shock.”
“Another family,” Cattaneo continued, “got out and the next day they were driving around, and the entire undercarriage of their car fell off. It had melted from the day before. They had a pretty good attitude about it.”
Though many owners were able to claim their animals shortly after the fire, many had property repairs that prevented them from taking their animals home. Once owners were able to reunite with their animals, volunteers with trailers would often transport them home. The shelter would send animals back with hay, feed, and other supplies the owners needed.
Supplies were not just provided to animals sent home. Owners who needed supplies, such as hay, could pick them up for free from the temporary shelter. Due to the increased need in supplies, volunteers from out of the area, and the state, continually brought feed and other supplies to the fairgrounds. “With as many fowl as we have, we go through probably five bags of chicken feed a day,” said Cattaneo.
Preparing Your Pets for the Worst
With the number of natural disasters (volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and wildfires) that Auburn is vulnerable to, residents should always be prepared to evacuate. “Everybody should have a go-bag for themselves, [and their pets]. Growing up we always had a trashcan outside with a go-bag for everybody in the house. You should have photos of your pets. If you want your pet back, at all, get it microchipped,” said Cattaneo.
Washington is one of the few states that does not have a mandatory hold period. The City of Auburn does have a 72-hour hold period. This may be different in an emergency situation like a natural disaster, but there is no guarantee if your animal is not chipped. “Microchip, microchip, microchip. If your entire place is destroyed, if you don’t have a grab bag with photos in it of your pets. If your cellphone melted and you don’t have access to Facebook – you’re relying on other people to have photos of your pets to get them back,” said Cattaneo.
“The only reason I knew it was one guy’s stallion was a tiny, literally an inch-by-inch, triangle brand. They need to have some sort of identifier. Even on your chickens.” Chickens can be identified with a small metal band around their leg. Metal bands are preferred over plastic, as plastic can melt or break off.
“If you own a horse, halter-break them,” stated Cattaneo. She explained that one of the challenges during recovery were horses and donkeys that not only were not halter-broken, but that had no experience with humans. “I understand the babies, but it’s dangerous for the horses and us if they’re not halter-broken.”
Understanding the Wildfire Devastation without Seeing the Damage
Cattaneo chose not to go into the field to see the damage caused by the fire. “But I can tell you by the number of animals we had come in, and their injuries; it’s no surprise this is the biggest and most deadly wildfire in California’s history.”
The last time Cattaneo went to California was in mid-January. Though no longer traveling to Butte County, she continues to support the victims of the wildfire. Cattaneo adopted a mare, Aurora, and a goat, Hershey. Aurora had bad smoke inhalation. Hershey was badly burned. “Aurora is doing well. My goat Hershey’s skin has healed, but she will never grow hair again, so she has to wear a raincoat or sunscreen,” shared Cattaneo.
Insurance projections indicate the total losses from the wildfires in Northern and Southern California could reach from $15 billion to $19 billion. Many of the first responders and animal control officers working the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire and recovery were also victims of the wildfires. Their dedication to their communities did not stop their service, despite suffering deep personal loss.