We are very thankful to all our brave firefighters who put their lives on the line to help others. Just last night they come to a house on my street to take someone to the hospital. The following article is about the Schell-Vista firefighters.
Schell-Vista Fire Department
Sonoma, CA 95476
Improvising to protect public
Schell-Vista firefighters use creativity as stormy day brings flooding, fires, power failures, fallen trees
By DEREK J. MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Saturday, Jan 5, 2008
There are a few things the men of the Schell-Vista Fire Protection District know will happen when heavy rain and high tides collide.
One is that the brackish water in Sonoma Creek will jump the banks, flooding roads, vineyards and sometimes houses.
Another is that motorists will ignore the signs firefighters put up to close the road and protect public safety.
"Will you look at that idiot?" volunteer fire Lt. Jason Webber, 32, said Friday morning when the driver of a pickup veered around a sign and headed straight for floodwaters raging across Highway 121 south of Sonoma.
What Webber did next -- steer his fire-red Ford 250 pickup equipped with sirens and lights into the oncoming lane to try to stop the errant driver -- is not recommended in training manuals.
But Webber, who also is a paid captain for the Marin County Fire Department, said if he followed the rules in situations like this, nothing would get done.
"I'd rather beg for forgiveness later than ask for permission first," he would say later when he and another firefighter helped themselves to more signs at Sonoma's vacant corporation yard.
Improvising in the face of chaos is just part of a firefighter's job.
That much was evident Friday as the men of Schell-Vista responded to a winter storm that brought flooding, fires, power failures, felled trees and other problems to Sonoma County.
Inside Station One, Webber stood next to a fire engine at 9:30 a.m. while going over a few points with a half-dozen firefighters.
They are among 40 firefighters, all male, who respond to emergency calls across 75 miles of territory outside Sonoma city limits, stretching east and south to the Napa and Solano County boundaries.
Schell-Vista firefighters Jamal Cook and Matt Garner trim a tree which fell on on a power line.
Station One, at Highway 121 and Broadway, is the local ground zero for floods, situated within sight of Sonoma Creek. When the creek spills over, water encircles the station and runs along the highway, which is within steps of the facility.
"Who's on swift-water?" Webber asked.
"Tall and stumpy," replied a firefighter, pointing to two men who generally fit those descriptions.
They've been through this drill so many times that they almost don't need reminding of what needs to be done.
They know it so well, in fact, that most of the men did not wait for their pagers to go off on Friday, but instead arrived early that morning on their own.
Tony Andersen, a 37-year-old firefighter who owns a window treatment business and grew up in the town, said he knew as early as Wednesday that he'd have to cancel a weekend getaway with his wife.
His watch, which records the tides, held an ominous forecast for Friday.
"We just know if we get an inch of rain and a 6.3 tide, the road's going over," said Andersen.
During New Year's storms in 2005-06, Schell-Vista firefighters assisted in almost two dozen swift-water rescues.
Webber's own parents were flooded out of their home and ended up living with him for more than a year while repairs on the house were made.
"Oh God, I hope it doesn't happen again," he said.
There was nothing that dramatic Friday. But the day did have its moments.
Minutes after wrapping up the briefing, Webber announced that the highway was flooding.
Within seconds, the men were scrambling to put on gear, including life vests for those assigned to swift-water rescue.
Their first goal was to close the byways leading to Highway 121.
With lights on his pickup flashing, Webber raced along the rural roads, passing cars that pulled to the side and skirting around downed trees.
At the busy intersection of Highways 121 and 116, Webber and firefighter Mickey Breen got out of the truck to erect signs closing the road. That job technically falls to Caltrans, but with the road under water, there was no time for formalities.
The pair then raced north to Watmaugh Road, where fallen tree branches were creating a hazard for motorists.
A firefighter informed Webber that branches had fallen onto a car being driven by a woman who said she was best friends with another woman who was killed in 2002 on Arnold Drive when a eucalyptus tree toppled onto her convertible.
"She was freaking out," the firefighter told Webber. The woman was uninjured.
The excitement lasted for several hours before subsiding along with the rain and wind.
Back at the station, some of the firefighters gathered on the back patio and scanned the flooded countryside with binoculars for ducks ahead of a scheduled hunt today.
Others gathered in the living quarters to watch a reality show on TV. It was then a matter of waiting for something to happen.
At one point, the men raced outside to watch as the driver of an SUV plowed along the flooded highway, ignoring the signs and risks to his own safety.
The driver made it through. But the firefighters have witnessed many other occasions when the outcome was different.
At least the game of chicken between Webber and the pickup driver resulted ultimately in the driver turning into a driveway before reaching the floodwaters.
"We're going to see people at their absolute dumbest," Webber predicted earlier in the day. "There's always a way around, but people panic. They need to relax."
You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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