SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Even with the 49th Military Police Brigade's storied experiences - multiple overseas deployments and a current homeland security mission - this California Army National Guard unit has never witnessed a natural disaster so destructive as October's fire inferno in Northern California.
"From Jan. 1 to Oct. 8 of this year, we saw almost 234,000 acres burned," said Scott McClain, a spokesman for CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). "But from Oct. 8 until (Oct. 22), we were looking at over 263,000 acres burned. This, by far, is the worst fire season California has ever been in."
This led the 49th's entire command into an emergency activation. At its peak, more than 1,500 troops responded, with hundreds more from other commands falling under the 49th task force that stretched into three North Bay counties northeast of San Francisco. The bulk of the Soldiers activated were military police, while others were comprised of drivers, mechanics, food services and more supporting members.
This marked the first time since the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that the 49th was activated entirely. Subordinate units have assisted in fire missions before, but hardly more than a company size.
"We got the call to deploy forces in support of local law enforcement in Sonoma County and the request quickly escalated," said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard S. Gibson, 49th operations command sergeant major. "The 49th has become the premiere unit for civil support on the ground during times of disaster or civil unrest. We are trained to quickly alert and mobilize for all-hazard response as shown during the Oroville Dam crisis earlier this year. We have shown that we can quickly respond with a multitude of assets and attain results."
The 49th's Fairfield, California, headquarters was the main operations site for three battalions that are based in Pittsburg, Lancaster and Santa Rosa. Nearly two dozen subordinate units were called up, some coming from Los Alamitos and National City in Southern California about 500 miles away. The mission was to supplement several thousand local and state police officers, and assist agencies under the California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES) with security.
Hundreds of military police officers hit the streets, controlling traffic points and other areas of entry. Additional Soldiers performed assistance patrols along hard-hit areas in Napa and Santa Rosa. "We're sending Soldiers out in vehicles to show our presence," said 1st Sgt. Frank Camacho of the 330th Military Police Company. "It's to let the community know we're there if they need us. The local police are doing so many things, and we're here to help them and the community in any way we can."
Gibson tracked more than 100 official tasks that were completed. In addition to controlling traffic points, troops were sent to help secure emergency shelters. They were sent to schools, colleges, local businesses, etc., to transport food, hygiene and medical supplies to other areas of need. Soldiers united with civilian volunteers to build up a donation site, while others were called to break down evacuation centers once residents were allowed to return to their homes. The task force also used its bilingual Soldiers to serve as interpreters at disaster centers where they assisted FEMA representatives helping non-English speaking victims.
"This was our chance to truly help our community and lend a hand wherever needed," Gibson said. "Our Soldiers performed traffic control, security and tent setup for evacuation centers, cleanup efforts at Sonoma County Developmental Center, decontamination of first responders during search and rescue operations and more."
Gibson continued, "We helped in the transportation of evacuees, cleanup of high schools, clearing debris from roads, and filled buckets with masks, gloves, and sifters to assist civilians searching for personal belongings left behind in the fires."
California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. activated the Cal Guard in early October, declaring, "the circumstances of these fires by reason of their magnitude, are, or are likely to be beyond the control of the services … of any single local government; the California National Guard shall mobilize … to support disaster response and relief efforts …"
In an official release, CAL FIRE announced that the Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 22 people in Santa Rosa, was the most destructive wildfire in California history. Three other North Bay fires that swept through the region on the same morning — two of them in Sonoma County — rank in the state's Top 20 list: The Nuns Fire in Sonoma Valley is No. 6; the Atlas Fire in Napa Valley at No. 10; and the Redwood Valley in Mendocino County fire ranks 16th.
In these October blazes alone, more than 8,000 homes and structures burned; more than 100,000 people were displaced, many of them finding temporary homes in evacuation centers; more than 40 killed, and more than 500 were unaccounted for, per CAL FIRE statistics.
"That fire," says McClean, referring to the Tubbs Fire that decimated an area called Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, "was like a blowtorch laying on its side and blowing through whatever it came across."
Since the start of the fire on Oct. 8, CAL FIRE responded to 250 new wildfires. At the peak of the wildfires, roughly 11,000 firefighters were battling 21 major wildfires that consumed 245,000-plus acres. Cal Guard forces were assigned to areas that were affected by the Tubbs, Pocket, Atlas and Nuns fires, the most destructive wildfires in the wine counties.
"Out of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state of California, Tubbs is now No. 1," said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner. "Nuns is No. 6, and we were dealing with both of those fires under this one incident management team, and they're complex."
This fire season marked one of the Cal Guard's most historic in terms of assets used. As the 49th dispersed its land troops, Cal Guard air assets continued the fight from above with helicopters and air tankers dropping millions of gallons of water and fire retardant. A force of 300 troops was training at the Cal Guard's Camp Roberts in preparation for ground support, where they follow fire lines and perform mop up operations.