California Wildfires

It was Friday June 18 sitting outside on the porch of the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Carmel Valley with my good friends and CERT teammates Wanda Vollmer and Deme Kastros when the recognizable alert tone sounded and a text came in.


Just having ordered breakfast, the conversation turned to the surprise of the local fire report and the somber realization that fire season had rudely arrived at our backyard. Apologizing for my sudden departure, I asked Deme how many times he had been interrupted during a meal, and the fire department veteran of some 45+ years simply said, “perhaps a thousand times.” We summoned the wait staff and I switched for food to go. This would be my last meal for 14 hours. 

Working with 6 SAR team members in three patrol vehicles we joined up with two other deputies on Tassajara Road to plot our strategy for the evacuations. Two zones had been established in the immediate area based on proximity to the advancing Willow Fire, now at 1000 acres and soon blowing up to 2000. The zones were Mandatory Evacuation and Evacuation Alert. Several hundred homes, ranches and wineries were in located in the zones and each required notification throughout the Tassajara and Arroyo Seco areas. It was going to be a long day and night.

With patrol units now separated, each team began working home to home, notifying residents, providing current updates, documenting residents who chose to stay in the mandatory evac zones, and capturing next-of-kin information – offering an advisement that we would not return if the situation worsened. Homes tagged with yellow police tape to signal to other teams that the residence was cleared. 

This very remote part of Carmel Valley was bone dry, heavily wooded in oak and thick underbrush. Temperatures soaring on this June day into triple digits. The darkening skies blackened with smoke and light winds made for an ominous setting. Our communications with the residents were quick and serious, yet familiar. We had been in the exact same situation in the same locations just 10 months prior. The community has experienced multiple fires and threats over the previous two decades and knew the drill.

For the longtime residents the pre planning and preparation was evident. Vehicles loaded, horse trailer doors opened ready to load, hose lines going from water sources to sprinklers on roof tops and outer buildings. Nearly everyone knew the status of their neighbors, how to reach them and if they were home. There were also networks of friends standing by to evacuate large domestic animals. It made our job so much easier knowing the community was working together and had planned for this eventuality. This was after all fire country and more than one person suggested there would be no “Paradise” here.

The only incoming traffic on the roads were USFS and Cal Fire trucks hauling water and fire crews moving in the direction of the fire on both Tassajara and Arroyo Seco Roads. An occasional wave and shout of gratitude from departing residents evacuating in the opposite direction. 

As the day turned to night the Mandatory Evacuation zone expanded in the Arroyo Seco area. All our teams moved back into this zone back hopping fences and locked gates, fending off dogs and an occasional cow, pounding on doors to enforce the order. Our efforts hindered by approaching darkness and fatigue. The strain of challenged communications added to the stress as we ventured into multiple areas with no cell or police radio coverage. The exceptional teamwork and progress made by the SAR team and Sheriff deputies showed no sign of letting up as we knew the fire would not wait. Rest and food would come later.

Scot Smythe – SAR #47