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Santa Monica Fire Crews: Fighting the Thomas Fire

January 2, 2018 12:22 PM
by Rick Cole

Santa Monica Fire Crews: Fighting the Thomas Fire

None of them had any idea they were being deployed to what would become the largest wildfire in California history.  But when the mutual aid call came at 10 p.m. on Monday, December 4, Santa Monica immediately dispatched two engines north to fight the Thomas Fire.  

The crews arrived around midnight and for the next 36 hours, firefighter Zach Mendoza recalls, there wasn’t time to eat or sleep.  That night, the fire raced 12 miles, engulfing a vast territory in wind-whipped flames.  “When we arrived, there were whole neighborhoods of houses on fire and it was our job to quickly pick which ones we’d step in to try to save.”  

It was literally Mendoza’s first day on the job as a Santa Monica firefighter.  He’s not new to firefighting – and had drawn extended duty before when he worked at CalFire.  But on Monday morning, he told his wife he’d see her the next morning.  Instead, he was gone for two weeks.  

Zach was stunned by the magnitude of the blaze consuming tracts of homes.  “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  You don’t have time to think, you are just reacting in the moment, concentrating on fighting the flames.  But it all became real to me when we saw a house just starting to go and we had to go inside to get at the fire.  I kicked down the door and immediately saw a Christmas tree right there in the living room, with presents still underneath.  It suddenly became real to see what that home meant to that family.”  

Zachary Mendoza battling to save a home in Ventura during his first night on the job as a Santa Monica Firefighter

Deputy Chief Tom Clemo was plunged into the other end of the largest mobilization of fire personnel and equipment in history.  A seasoned incident commander, he was thrust into the furious battle at base camp headquarters in Ventura to get ahead of the fast-moving inferno advancing across several fronts.  “It was exhausting, rewarding and heartbreaking,” he explains.  Exhausting speaks for itself.  Rewarding, he notes, because of the “pride in my brothers and sisters working their tails off to save lives and homes.”  Unlike the firestorm the month before in Northern California, which claimed the lives of 43 victims, only one civilian died.  “The text alerts worked really well to give people enough time to evacuate,” he details. Heartbreaking because of the death of CalFire Engineer Cory Iverson who succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation on the line of fire.  

Santa Monica Fire staff ended up working across a number of assignments during their lengthy tour of duty.  Battalion Chief John Nevandro commanded a task force of mixed resources, including a four-wheel drive engine that was deployed to protect homes and valuable avocado orchards that would take years to replace.  The task force worked the eastern end of the gigantic blaze, prepping bulldozed fire lines with as much as a mile of hoses ready for action when the flames arrived.  “Although we didn’t save everything,” Nevandro observes, “we did a lot of good.” 

Engineer Tim Wenger fighting the flames engulfing a home during the Thomas Fire

Firefighter Alex Martinet worked as a field observer, vital work for mapping blazes that is crucial to allocating resources and getting ahead of the wind-driven flames.  Captain Mike Fitzgerald was deployed to work with the heavy equipment that clears brush to not only deprive the advancing wall of flame of fuel, but to give firefighters room to make a stand.  Firefighter Chris Alexander was dispatched to the Thomas Fire just as he passed his probation year.  Captain Johnny Macchini and Captain Matt Hill each commanded crews in the same mixed agency strike team with engines from LA, Beverly Hills and Culver City.  Crews work 24 hours on, 24 hours off.  During the lulls when they were waiting for the fires to come their way, crews took turns catching naps sleeping upright in the cabs of the fire engines.  Back at base camp for the rest days, they slept in “sleep trailers” – giant truck trailers with 50 bunks packed into the cramped space.  “That was like sleeping in a mansion compared to sleeping in our engines," Hill remembers. 

Hill and his colleagues take their arduous duty in stride.  “Just part of the job,” Hill says.  “My wife is very understanding.  When I told her where I was headed and that I might be gone awhile, she told me, ‘Just be safe.’”  Hill also insists that credit be shared with the crews who worked extra shifts back home to make up for the absent crews and chiefs.  

Macchini echoes the sentiments.  Whether it is spending two weeks fighting the largest fire in California history or running a 24 hour shift at home, he maintains, "When you leave for work, you just never know what awaits you.  Everyday is something different.  I've been doing this for 17 years.  The Thomas Fire was surreal — when we got to Ventura it seemed like the whole city was on fire.  We spread ourselves to the absolute max, physically, mentally, we gave it everything we could.  I just feel this deep sadness for the people who lost everything.  We had a guy run up to us and just beg us to save his home.  His garage was already destroyed and we were able to keep him from losing everything else he had.  I think I made a friend for life during the two hours we spent fighting the inferno." 

I know that our entire Santa Monica City community joins me in paying tribute to their dedication and valor, thanking all who served so ably in a wildfire that goes into the California history books: 

Deputy Chief Tom Clemo 
Battalion Chief John Nevandro 
Captain Mike Fitzgerald 
Captain Matt Hill 
Captain Johnny Maccini 
Engineer Tim Wenger 
Firefighter Dominick Bei 
Engineer Brendt Noon 
Firefighter Christopher Alexander 
Firefighter Alex Martinet 
Firefighter Zachary Mendoza 
Firefighter Jon Sly 
Firefighter Tom Stanfill

Deputy Chief Tom Clemo, who saw it all at the heart of the command center, sums it up: “There is so much to be proud of in the work that they did.  They are so good at what they do.”    

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