Firefighting can be a dangerous, challenging job. But for about two-thirds of Americans who battle fires in the U.S., it's not a paid job but a volunteer position, according to a 2018 report by the National Fire Protection Association.
The leaders of two local volunteer fire departments spoke with The Almanac about working alongside career firefighters to battle the CZU August Lightning Complex fires, blazes that have torn through the coastal forests of southern San Mateo County and Santa Cruz County and have come dangerously close to their home communities.
Ari Delay, chief of La Honda Fire Brigade, celebrated his birthday in late August by protecting his hometown from the blaze of a century, and eating some midnight cake at his home fire station.
Delay leads the brigade on top of his day job as fire chief of the San Bruno Fire Department. He's lived in La Honda his whole life, he said.
He and his 14-member team of volunteer firefighters have played a significant role in tackling the CZU August Lightning Complex fires that have threatened to burn the forested hamlet they call home.
La Honda Fire Brigade is one of only a handful of volunteer fire brigades in San Mateo County, along with Loma Mar and Kings Mountain.
The brigade, which typically responds to about 400 calls per year, has been working day and night to attack the fires ravaging the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Delay said.
Delay's team responded when lightning ignited one of the fires that would become part of the CZU Fire Complex, which had burned 85,378 acres and was 46% contained as of Wednesday. When the lightning hit in a remote area inaccessible by vehicles, his crew trekked over a mile through dense terrain to find and fight the fire, helping to clear the path for other firefighters.
"We've been basically on duty since the fires started," Delay said. "The work is long and exhausting. However, the importance when it's your own community brings it home that much more and inspires you. (It gives you) motivation to keep going even when you're completely exhausted."
The CZU fires have presented an unprecedented fire battle. At their worst, the flames were only about 2 miles from La Honda, Delay said.
"This is a career fire. There's nothing of this scale or magnitude in this century in San Mateo County or Santa Cruz County," he said.
The work has been tiring, but the community especially the small population of La Honda, which numbers about 1,500 has provided abundant support, Delay said.
"It's been overwhelming, the amount that people have stood up to support the efforts," he said. Local ham radio operators and the town's CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team, have been very active, providing real-time status updates to community members and helping to coordinate large animal evacuations.
Others have helped by providing janitorial services to keep the firehouse clean and open.
The groups have built relationships and gone through training in previous years that helped to make the current responses so coordinated, he said.
"Everybody's pitched in how they can," he said. "It's an honor, honestly, to help lead a group of folks in a community in efforts to help protect itself. It takes a village to get all these things accomplished at the same time."
Hank Stern is the assistant chief of the Kings Mountain Fire Brigade on Skyline Boulevard in Woodside. Its primary response area is Skyline north to Highway 92, just south of Highway 84, down Tunitas Creek on the west side and down Kings Mountain Road on the east side.
The firefighters on the all-volunteer staff of 14 have the same level of training as paid firefighters. The department receives about 250 dispatches a year, Stern said, the majority of which are medical aid calls or vehicle collision responses. "A fair number" of calls are wildland or structure fire responses, and firefighters are also trained in high-angle rope rescues.
During the week of Aug. 17, in the days after the CZU Lightning Complex fires started, the Kings Mountain firefighters provided additional support for Cal Fire for two or three days until they ramped up staffing. Over that span, the department sent a unit down to the fire lines and swapped out its staff about every 12 hours, although sometimes shifts lasted as long as 18 to 22 hours, Stern said.
All of the volunteers have full-time jobs; some worked on the fire lines after their day jobs were done, while others like Stern, who works in the biotechnology business and has served as a Kings Mountain firefighter for 26 years, took time off.
"In our department we have chemical engineers, nurses, electrical engineers, mechanics – there's a wide variety of skill sets that we can access," Stern said. "It's an incredibly motivated group. Everyone has their reasons for contributing their time and expertise; most have the opportunity to give back and want to make a difference."
The brigade shared photos from the fire lines on Twitter, scenes of firefighters spraying trees being licked by flames a few feet away. As residents of nearby La Honda evacuated, Kings Mountain firefighters fought the flames alongside Cal Fire, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and La Honda Fire Brigade, among others.
Residents, in turn, have shown their appreciation and support for the volunteer brigade. Last week, firefighters found a thank you note tied to a tree alongside their fire engine, and on the same day received a full dinner donated by Alice's Restaurant in Woodside.
"For some of our residents that may have health issues, they see familiar faces from their community (when firefighters respond)," Stern said. "They see people that know their dogs, their families, their medical conditions, and that puts them at ease."
The strong connection firefighters have with the area and residents has motivated them, he said.
"It affects the firefighters personally as far as knowing people in the area or their own family being on edge," Stern said. "It provides quite a bit of motivation for firefighters to support and help. ... We know the area, we can take action right away, we have a short response time and the staff is trained and has the equipment to make a significant impact."
Typically, the Labor Day weekend would see crowds of people making their way up to the redwood-shrouded community for the annual Kings Mountain Art Fair, a fundraiser for the fire brigade and local Kings Mountain Elementary School that accounts for a significant portion of the budget for apparatus and gear purchases, Stern said. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival has gone virtual this year. The lack of an in-person event presents a "bit of a challenge" for the brigade financially, but Stern learned earlier this week that organizers received an anonymous matching grant of $10,000 for donations to the department during the virtual fair, a direct result of their help with the CZU Lightning Complex fires. (Visit kingsmountainartfair.org for more information.)
On the home front, families have also served as an essential support system for firefighters.
"Many times our families are covering for everything we haven't done," Stern said. "Usually a lot of people in the community are asking questions, and many times our spouses are on the back end of those questions. It's also challenging for other family members – you don't know if you'll be out for five minutes or five hours or an entire day.
"We have great family support, and we have huge community support. ... It's one of the tightest communities I've ever seen in terms of people looking out for each other and making sure neighbors are safe."
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which employs about 100 firefighters, has taken steps to help volunteer firefighters working farther south in Santa Cruz County. They brought supplies like cots and a mobile shower and washing machine and created an online fundraising campaign to support the Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek volunteer fire protection districts, which can be accessed at here.
"We're up here daily making sure they have what they need. If people would like to help support that effort, we would very much appreciate it," said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman in a statement.