'Searching for something to save': Berkeley fire unit in Santa Rosa

A rare view inside a California wildfire
A rare view inside a California wildfire

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A rare view inside a California wildfire 01:13

Story highlights

  • Firefighters record devastation as they head to help fight fire in Santa Rosa
  • They realized "this is one of those incidents that you don't think you're ever going to confront," firefighter says

Santa Rosa, California (CNN)They thought they were going to help put out a grass fire, never expecting to see a community fully engulfed in flames.

"Engine 6" from the Berkeley Fire Department decided to document the effort. (Many California fire departments and those from surrounding states would later assist in battling the wildfires.) The video now posted on YouTube gives the unique vantage point of firefighters as they race toward danger, completely unaware of the devastation they would encounter from the Tubbs Fire, one of more than 20 deadly blazes being fought in Northern California since October 8.
"A lot of times we'll try and document for training purposes," said Mike Shuken, a Berkeley firefighter and paramedic.
    The 11-year veteran shot and edited the video, a gripping 10 minutes showing what his team encountered on the morning of October 9 in Santa Rosa, the community that suffered the worst damage, with nearly 3,000 residences destroyed.
    "Are you serious?" One of the firefighters says in disbelief upon seeing the glow of structures.
    Teaming up with some crews from San Francisco, the Engine 6 crew became part of a strike team assigned to knock down flames or provide rescues if necessary. Berkeley and San Francisco are both about 50 miles south of Santa Rosa.
    Berkeley's Engine 6 found devastation in Santa Rosa, but also saved some homes from fire.
    The firefighters were told to rendezvous at a Santa Rosa Kmart; crews thought it would be an ideal spot because of its large parking lot and because it was in the center of town. But when Engine 6 arrived, the structure was fully engulfed.
    "That was the moment when we probably realized that this is one of those incidents that you don't think you're ever going to confront," Shuken said.
    "At that point, we just realized that this was going to be a huge incident, " he said.
    Moments later the video shows the crew arriving at a neighborhood that has been decimated. The disbelief is evident in their voices.
    "This is like a freakin' bomb went off."
    "Just BBQs and chimneys. That's all that's left."
    "Oh, no. These poor people."
    This is part of the scene Engine 6 encountered. Thousands of homes have been burned in Santa Rosa.
    It was the Coffey Park neighborhood, a middle-class Santa Rosa subdivision where over a thousand homes were destroyed.
    "It becomes very personal when you see houses burning that close," Shuken said.
    "Everybody went home, had their dinner, and got to bed. A few hours later, their houses burned to the ground with everything in it, " he said, while lamenting that there was little firefighters could do.
    The video continues as the firefighters pass the devastated neighborhood, trying to find a place where they could do their job. They were "searching for something we could save," a caption in the video says.
    The video later shows the team making a stand between some houses that were burning and some that were not. Shuken estimates they were able to save about 30 homes by breaking the fire's momentum. Houses on one side of a street were destroyed, with houses on the other side seemingly unscathed. "Someone called that transition between the saved and lost the 'Line of Sorrow,' " the video caption says.
    The video had been viewed more than 167,000 times on YouTube by Tuesday evening. Shuken said he thought it was important to show people what first responders encounter when they arrive at an incident as devastating as the one his team witnessed.
    "This is going to be a very long-term recovery. But this is a very resilient community. It's going to take a lot of work. But we're going to rebuild," he said.