Sitting in a fire truck on his second 24-hour shift battling the River Fire in Monterey County, firefighter David Serna had barely just closed his eyes for a quick rest when his phone rang and jolted him awake.
His wife was on the other line. An evacuation warning had just been issued for their neighborhood tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and sheriff’s deputies were going house to house in the middle of the night telling people they needed to leave.
Serna, who has spent the last three decades fighting wildfires and protecting strangers’ homes across California, told her what he would tell anyone forced to flee from the flames of a fast-moving blaze: Grab the important things — heirlooms, pictures, documents — and don’t worry about anything else.
But as he knows all too well, there will always be those mementos you can’t put a price tag on but don’t think to grab until it’s too late.
And for Serna and his wife Gina, it would be too late.
Just days after his crew valiantly tried to fend off flames from homes in Monterey County, the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire incinerated his cabin Aug. 19 on Swanton Road just north of Davenport, along with most of his neighbors’ homes.
“When you deal with it from the other side, there’s always a certain amount of empathy you have for people who have lost everything,” said Serna, a firefighter with the Presidio of Monterey Fire Department. “But that amplifies when you now understand — when you lose everything and feel what they were feeling and go through what you saw others go through.”
Firefighter David Serna’s home on Swanton Road just north of Davenport was destroyed by the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire. (Courtesy of Gina Orlando)
With some of the largest wildfires in California history burning at the same time, Serna is just one of many firefighters battling the blazes on one front while suffering devastating first-hand losses on the home front.
A handful of firefighters, all living within a few miles of Serna, have seen their homes burned to the ground since lightning strikes turned the Santa Cruz Mountains into a growing inferno a week and a half ago.
Geoffery Keller, a firefighter with Cal Fire who lives on Last Chance Road in Santa Cruz County, had just finished cutting down trees, clearing brush and creating control lines near Warnella Road east of Davenport on Aug. 18 when he decided to meet his wife, Allegra, at their home to start packing up their belongings to evacuate.
When the couple first arrived, an orange glow of flames could be seen in the distance about five miles away, Keller said. By the time they loaded up their car, the blaze appeared to have made it within a half mile of where they were standing in their driveway.
Keller, knowing how quickly the fire must have been moving, began frantically calling friends and neighbors telling them they needed to get out immediately.
Last Chance Road is a six-mile road that weaves from Swanton Road just off of Highway 1 up to the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains, next to Big Basin State Park.
There was only one way in and one way out, and because the area is so remote and power had been cut off just days before, Keller knew the kind of catastrophe that awaited them if people didn’t move quickly.
Within hours, the blaze had torn through the valley that includes both Last Chance Road and Swanton Road, destroying more than 100 homes and properties in its path and killing one of Keller’s neighbors, Tad Jones, a 73-year-old Vietnam War vet.
“We don’t lose often, but that was a bad one,” Keller said.
Without even seeing it, Keller said he knew his home was gone. But after taking less than two days off to deal with the losses and figure out a plan for him and his family, he returned to his Cal Fire crew to try and stop the CZU August Lightning Fire from destroying properties just a few miles from where his home once stood.
“It’s been really therapeutic and cathartic to get back out there and make myself useful,” he said. “We’ve been able to save a lot of houses. Almost every person we talk to has tears in their eyes, and then soon we’re all crying together.”
BONNY DOON, CA – AUGUST 23: Cal Fire firefighter Geoffrey Keller burns vegetation along a fire line during the CZU Lighting Complex Fire in Bonny Doon on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif. Keller’s home was destroyed by the CZU Lighting Complex Fire. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Darrell Sales, a firefighter with the San Jose Fire Department for the past 11 years, had a similar mindset when he found out that the home he had saved up to buy less than three months ago in Boulder Creek had been decimated by the blaze.
“The good thing about fires is there’s no malice behind it. It is what is it,” Sales said. “We’re going to take it a day at a time, but we’ll definitely rebuild.”
Even though he regularly cleared brush around his home and tried to make his property as fire-resistant as possible, “Firefighters are members of the community, just like anyone else,” Sales said.
“There’s nothing extra protecting my house just because I’m a firefighter,” he added.
Darrell Sales, a San Jose Firefighter, lost his Boulder Creek home in the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Handout
At least three other firefighters who live in Sales’ neighborhood in the Boulder Creek mountains also lost their homes in the blaze, he said.
And just two days after giant flames incinerated their properties, they all went back up together to do all they could to save other homes still standing.
“I think overall that is the firefighter’s mentality — to get back in the game,” Sales said. “If there’s anything that would make me feel better at this point, it’s knowing that I made sure to help someone else or protect someone else’s property.”
Over the past week, community members have raised more than $117,000 for Serna, Keller and Sales through separate GoFundMe accounts — aid the firefighters say they’re grateful for but also unaccustomed to receiving.
“I’m used to being the one that’s helping, that’s doing things for others,” Serna said. “Now, it’s being done for me and it’s really amazing.
“It’s not in our nature to give up,” he added. “This won’t stop us from protecting other homes.”