It’s about a 20-hour drive from Issaquah and Snoqualmie to Malibu, Calif.
During that drive, local firefighters thought of family as they returned from fighting the wildfires that devastated thousands of homes in Southern California this month.
“I had a lot of people coming up to me who recognized the Snoqualmie Falls area,” said Snoqualmie firefighter Matt Mundy, who was part of a Washington strike team that assisted in California. “The hospitality was great not only from the citizens down there, but even the local fire departments… they were very appreciative and welcoming.”
Mundy joined two firefighters from Duvall, another from Fall City and about eight from the Eastside Fire & Rescue in the state-wide effort to assist California firefighters as they deal with the aftermath of two deadly fires.
The more than 150,000-acre wide “Camp Fire” has killed 81 people and destroyed more than 13,500 homes as of Nov. 21, according to Cal Fire reports. The Eastside team assisted with the Woolsey Fire which burned nearly 100,000 acres, destroyed 1,500 structures and killed three people, bringing the statewide toll in fires to 84. With many residents unaccounted for, authorities fear the death toll will continue to rise.
“It looks like something you see in a sci-fi movie when a bomb goes off and just levels everything,” said Eastside Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Dave McDaniel. “One area we drove through in the countryside, there was nothing but ash. Anything that could burn, burned and there was nothing but ash left.”
“It kind of looked like the moonscape. It was just dust, a few stumps, rubble and it just looked like nothing — like an atomic bomb went off,” echoed Mundy.
The Eastside team was assigned to keep watch over a residential area in the Malibu area as the Woolsey Fire died down. While the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire are mostly contained, the Eastside strike team supported numerous local residents and worked with California firefighters to contain many smaller fires that popped up in the area.
“The Woolsey and the Camp Fire are the big fires that got all the media attention, but during that last week and a half they had hundreds of small fires. So we were available to go and be the initial attack for those,” McDaniel said.
“Fortunately, the fire wasn’t as big of a threat when we got there,” Mundy added. “[Prior to that] the fire was just blowing through home after home after home, so that’s what we were anticipating.”
McDaniel described a two-acre fire that the Eastside team worked with California firefighters to control.
“If this had wind, this fire would have taken off and run [like the bigger fires],” McDaniel said. “The Santa Ana winds are really what cause the [mass] devastation. You can take that same fire and if you don’t add that wind to it, you might have a 10,000-acre fire as opposed to a 150,000-acre fire.”
Aside from assisting with brush fires, the Eastside team also held the fire line in a residential development east of Malibu for the first 24-hours of their deployment. Mundy described it as a much needed morale boost for the Thousand Oaks residents who could see the fire raging on a nearby hillside from their homes.
Only two days before the 130,000 Thousand Oaks residents were ordered to evacuate because of the fires, a gunman killed 12 people at Borderline Bar and Grill.
Mundy was part of five teams on five engines that watched over about 70 homes, ready to take action if the winds shifted an the fire spread.
“That community was dealing with that [shooting] and now on top of that dealing with their homes being threatened by this fire,” Mundy said. “We were there to support in any way whether it was showing the kids the engine, or we spent the night there in that development on our engine and I think just that community there slept a little better.”
Mundy added that the community was abundantly thankful for the help and showed it by offering the firefighters dinner, gas to get home and general praise.
“Our community has had a mass killing and over 500 homes burned down within five days,” said Jeffrey Engen, a Thousand Oaks local who reached out to the Reporter via email. “The city of Snoqualmie sent some firefighters to help us… These men traveled very far to help us and they made a difference.”
So while the Eastside team was driving home, thankful for the families they returned to, the families of Thousand Oaks were thankful for the Washington firefighters who drove for two days to help them sleep soundly for a night.
“Unfortunately we told the guys not to put their stuff away,” McDaniel said, “they may be going down there again, and certainly we’ll be going down again next summer.”