The most destructive fire in California history left the City of Santa Rosa minus 3,000 homes, and thousands more displaced. When the Tubbs fire ripped through major residential areas Oct. 8- 9, there was little warning. Residents were brutally awakened in the middle of the night to utter chaos: smoke, heavy winds, neighbors screaming “fire,” and honking horns to raise the alarm. Most people grabbed what they could and evacuated. Lifelong Sonoma County resident, Steve Brusnahan, 59, owner of Blue Water Pool Service, stayed to fight. This is his story.
A neighbor woke us up at 2 in the morning, saying there was a fire on the way to our house and we needed to evacuate immediately. I told him I didn’t intend to leave and he said he didn’t either. So I put my wife in the truck and sent her on her way to our daughter’s house.
The fire got to my house at about 3 in the morning. I looked out the window it was coming up the hill. Even that far away, my neighbor’s fence caught on fire — it must have been an ember. So I ran over to their house, kicked the boards out of the fence, and put the fire out with a hose. My neighbor’s house is completely covered with old growth oak trees so I spent a lot of time there. I had to stop the fire there or my house was next.
Another neighbor’s fence caught on fire so I went over to his house and kicked his fence down and started putting the fire out there. He had something leaning against the fence that didn’t want to go out and I was spraying it from my backyard.
Here’s some advice: don’t stack stuff up against your fence. Everywhere there was a stack of stuff, there was a fire, and fences go up like match sticks.
At around 4 in the morning, I fell into my pool. My phone was in my pocket, so now I didn’t have a cell phone.
My neighbor was on the other side of the cul-de-sac and was fighting the fire coming to his house.
At this point there were three houses on my street fully engulfed in flames. One of the fences across the street on the corner house was starting to burn so I went over there and fought it. I went back over to my house and there were 6 spot fires in my back yard so I decided I couldn’t go back across the street. I had to stay and fight the fire where I was.
Our neighborhood was completely surrounded with fire coming at us from all directions. The wind was blowing maybe 60 to 80 miles an hour so we had a rainstorm of embers. Fences were starting to burn in a lot of places so I kicked out more fences and put out more fires.
A fire truck showed up at 5 in the morning. He set up on the other side of the street because a neighbor’s house was next in line. We didn’t have any big fires on my side of the street yet.
The fireman told us to leave and I told him I wasn’t leaving.
We fought the fire for a long time and the sun still wasn’t up. The fireman was anticipating the fire hydrants going dead. He said, “When we lose water, we’re done, we’re all leaving.”
I told him that I have a swimming pool but he said that they don’t carry pumps to pump out a pool.
So here’s another recommendation. If you have a pool, and you live in a rural area, go buy yourself a gas powered pump so you can pump out your pool.
He borrowed my pick-up. He wanted to see if he could find another fire truck with a pump, because some of the trucks do have them. He knew the hydrant was going to stop. It was just a matter of time.
What happens is that all those houses that have already burned or are in the process of burning become water leaks. The feed-line pipes melt or break. So much water is let out that the city’s pumps can’t keep up. He came back with a Cal Fire truck with a pump.
We set up at my pool, and 15 minutes later, the hydrants went dead, so we had no more city water.
At this point there were five or six houses on my street fully engulfed in flames. The house I tried to help? Gone, fully engulfed. And the one next to it was starting to go up.
The firefighters were setting up the fire line. Firefighters don’t fight fire where it is. They fight it where it’s going to be. They were doing a pretty good job on that side of the street. I was holding my side of the street by myself.
Another truck showed up and helped the guys on the other side of the street. Then finally, the house two doors down from me caught on fire.
It was important to me that we get that fire out because if that house burned, there was no way we were going to stop it going to my house.
One of the trucks pulled over to that house and we got another pump for my pool, so now my pool was feeding two fire trucks. We had about six firemen plus me and my neighbor, Tim, who’s a Petaluma City police officer.
At this point the sun was up and most of our resources were going to the house one down from mine. We were losing the battle against this house because it had lot of old growth oak around it.
When fire hydrants go dead, Cal Fire has contracts with construction water trucks. One of them stopped in our neighborhood. I actually knew him because I take care of his swimming pool. So I jumped up on his truck and said, “Man, we could sure use some water.”
On the top of his water truck he has a fire nozzle. So he turns the water on and dumps 4,000 gallons of water on that house in about 10 minutes. He pretty much put it out — not completely, but at that point, he’s out of water, so he left.
The firemen tell Tim and I that we’re going to have to finish this by ourselves and they rolled up their hoses and left. They thought that we had knocked the fire out on that house on the corner and that it wasn’t going to come back.
So Tim and I run around for another two hours putting out spot fires. We put out about 200 spot fires with 5-gallon buckets of water out of my pool and shovels. I have a couple of quads, so we rode around putting out fires.
Then a Cal Fire guy showed up – that house on the corner had started back on fire, and it was raging pretty good. It was probably 9:30 in the morning.
I get my chainsaw out and the Cal Fire guy is there with an ax so we beat on the house for a while. We knocked down a couple of the walls, dumping water on it with buckets. We were losing the battle and the fire was growing by the second.
There was a fire truck below us, filling his truck with water out of a tanker truck, so I go down and ask him to come up and help. He tells me he can’t – he’s working on a fire somewhere else so he filled up and left.
The guy who’s running the tanker truck tells me he’s got 1,000 gallons of water in his truck and a fire hose. He comes up and I start putting that house out with 100 feet of inch and a half fire hose.
As luck would have it, that same water truck from before shows up. He puts another 4,000 gallons of water on that house again. All that’s standing is the walls but the problem is the walls are so high they’re burning into the oak trees. So he used the water cannon to knock down as many of the walls as he could and soak the trees.
At that point, the majority of the fire had moved elsewhere. There are 19 houses on my street. Seven of them burned, we saved 12 of them by setting up fire lines.
The next 2 days we rode around, putting out spot fires.
We were on marshal law so we were not allowed out of our houses after sun down. Everybody was gone. Then a few more people came back and helped put out spot fires.
For seven days, there were cops everywhere because that’s when the looters move in. People hear about the fires and they come looking for the houses that are still standing because they know they are empty. We were a prime target because we had the only standing houses in the area.
Tim helped a lot of people. He brought people in so they could get to their homes.
We extracted gun safes and safes full of money, gold and silver. People were trying to get it out of their house before someone else came along and stole it. We spent the next seven days doing that. The National Guard showed up on Wednesday, and they wouldn’t let anyone in or out. I had an interesting rapport with the National Guard because they couldn’t give me permission to do what I was doing but after my reputation got around, they ignored me. It went on like that until the Monday after the fire.
A couple people moved back in. We had no water, electricity, or gas. I have two generators and I was using them to help people keep their refrigerators
going. They told us at one point that the fire was on its way back because of the high winds.
I borrowed a gas pump and 250 feet of hose from a company called Johnson Pools so if the fire did come back, I would have a pump to feed the fire trucks out of my pool.
And as soon as the National Guard let me out, I went out and bought a pump for my personal use. I got a 6½-hp, 192-gallon-a-minute, gas-powered pump.
Now I can feed a fire truck and fight my own fire out of my pool. I told several of my customers to do the same thing.
When my neighbors came back, they were grateful, but I just did it because it needed to be done. And if a couple more people would have stayed, we could have saved every house on the street, but there might have been a greater loss of life.
Everything around us is gone now. There is absolutely nothing left.
But life goes on.
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