SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A line of vehicles was building up when Airmen 1st Class Danelle Perey utilized the power of the hand.
That's where Perey, a member of the California Air National Guard's 146th Security Forces Squadron, holds up all of his fingers vertically and makes eye contact with each driver.
"Stop!" he says, emphatically. "Where are you heading to?"
People coming through Perey's station, as well as the dozens of checkpoints manned by the Cal Guard during the Northern California wildfires, give various reasons for wanting to pass. They're fire responders, such as environmentalists, utility workers, government employees, and, of course, returning residents. But everyone has to have the proper credentials, and it's these Cal Guard members who sort out who is permitted to pass.
"We know we're the first line of defense in making sure everyone's safe," said Perey, at his Santa Rosa traffic control point (TCP). "It's a critical mission. We understand the people's situation, so we're really trying to help them. It's a humbling experience."
At the height of October's wine county fires, the Cal Guard controlled more than 50 traffic points, said Maj. Donald Lipscomb, operations officer, 579th Engineer Battalion, 49th Military Police Brigade. Each point featured three- or four-man teams operating on a 12-hour schedule, but manpower dwindled to two-man teams as the need for the Cal Guard lessened. Occupying these traffic points opened up local and state law enforcement to deal with other incidents, said Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano.
"The California National Guard was invaluable in our response during the fires," said Giordano. "They were professional and capable. This was the largest natural disaster our county has ever faced. We absolutely relied on National Guard troops and mutual aid to keep our community safe."
Giordano added, "We had over 600 National Guard troops help us secure evacuation areas to make sure community members stayed safe and their property remained secure. We could not have maintained that level of safety and security without them."
First Sgt. Antonio M. Delgadillo, first sergeant for the 149th CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) Company, said one of the biggest factors for the TCPs was to divert looters. There are people taking advantage of local residents who have lost their homes and possessions, so controlling traffic points helps minimize entry into affected areas.
An Oct. 29 Los Angeles Times story reported how Santa Rosa police arrested two looting suspects, caught "amid the congestion of vehicles at a National Guard roadblock less than a mile away."
"There are people here who are victims of the fire. They come in here to check what's left of their lives," Delgadillo explained. "Yet there are people who aren't from here who are coming in and taking stuff. It's like getting victimized twice."
"If it wasn't for us being here (at TCPs), people will be taking what they want," added Senior Airman Jess Contreras, also of the 146th SFS. "We're trying to deter people from getting access to what's not theirs. We're glad to have this opportunity to do our part in helping the residents."
Occupying TCPs is not the most glamorous mission, Soldiers and Airmen explained. But everyone's aware it's critical, and they're taking it seriously.
"Sunlight," said an 870th Military Police Company specialist. "That's the only light we get. We don't need the limelight or spotlight. We do this strictly to help people and police officers. It's not for our fame and fortune."
"Everyone stays stern at the TCPs. There are some people who get irate, but the Soldiers and Airmen defuse the situation with a lot of understanding," added Delgadillo. "We remember there are those who've lost everything. We feel for them."