Protecting lives is their No. 1 priority. That’s why they keep on working.
Dozens of firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies in Northern California have lost their homes to the massive Camp Fire, officials say, and their numbers are expected to grow. But it has barely stopped the officers from answering the call of duty.
The Camp Fire is the most destructive in the state’s history, torching thousands of homes and obliterating the historic town of Paradise. By Monday morning, it had burned more than 113,000 acres and was about 25% contained.
“A high percentage of firefighters who live and work here lost their homes,” Tim Aboudara, a representative of the International Association of Firefighters, told CNN affiliate KCRA.
“To see the number of them that were out there fighting the fire, knowing that their own homes were lost, it’s just – it’s unbelievable.”
At least 53 firefighters had lost their homes in Butte County as of Sunday night, Aboudara said.
One of them is Leland Ratcliff, captain of the US Forest Service’s Feather River Hotshot crew. He saw the smoke over Paradise on Thursday and said his intuition told him the fire was on a rapid path to destroy the town.
He was able to tell his wife, who took both children out of school before official evacuations began. As the family fled with their dog, cat and important documents, there were already spot fires near their home, Ratcliff told CNN.
Once they were safe, Ratcliff said, he had to make a decision: “Do I go try to save other stuff (from our house) or do I go to try to let people know what was going on?”
He chose the latter, evacuating residents from their houses and plucking them from the streets, putting them on Forest Service vehicles and racing them to points of protection set up by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
He said it wasn’t a difficult decision in the moment, but then he realized what things he lost forever in the house he left – his children’s handprints from kindergarten, and his wedding pictures.
“The guilt doesn’t come until afterwards, when you realize you don’t have that stuff anymore. … You always want to think that life is more important than property, but it doesn’t make it any easier in hindsight.”
The IAFF union set up a disaster operations center in the town of Chico to help members affected by the fire. Aboudara shared the story of one firefighter who came to the center on Sunday.
“He was just blocks away from his own home, engaged in a firefight, well aware that his own home was possibly on fire,” Aboudara said. “He had to stay on mission and keep doing his job, not knowing if his fiancée got out.”
Most members of the Paradise police force lost their houses, Mayor Jody Jones told KCRA. The mayor herself was left homeless – along with town council members and public works employees, she said.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office said more than 30 of its sheriff’s deputies reported for duty despite losing their homes, too, CNN affiliate KTXL reported.
Jarrod Hughes, a sergeant with the nearby Colusa Police Department, said he raced out of his Paradise home when the fire got closer, throwing his bags and animals in his truck and making sure his 14-year-old son got to safety.
But after doing that, Hughes told KTXL, “I get my uniform and my patrol car and head back up to help.”
“It’s my community. It’s where I grew up. It’s something I absolutely had to do,” he explained. “There was no question about it. It was get my family to safety so I can get in and get back up there and help everybody else.”
Monday, Ratcliff was in Susanville, where the family is staying with his mother-in-law. It was his first day off since Thursday, but he planned to be back at work the next day.
Asked what he says to people who might call him brave, Ratcliff demurred.
“No, I don’t know. No. We just do what we do because we like it. We like helping people. The adrenaline rush and helping people. We like making a difference.”