Darrell Sales is no stranger to wildfires. As a second-generation firefighter, he has battled countless blazes that have razed down homes.
But this time, his own house was the victim of one of these fires.
“It’s been a whirlwind of events and a lot of emotions and a lot of different things happening at once,” said Sales. “I’ve seen plenty of houses burn down and, you know, I definitely have a new perspective or just a new insight now that my house has joined that group.”
Sales has been firefighter for the San Jose Fire Department for the past 11 years.
When he and his partner, Chelsea, bought their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains last year, he knew that wildfires were a possibility.
“The first thing I did when I moved into my house was cut back all the brush and get defensible space,” Sales said.
But that defensible space was no match for what came next.
The CZU August Lightning Fire Complex – a lightning-sparked wildfire that has decimated more than 81,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in California – claimed one more casualty: the couples’ first home was burned to the ground on August 19.
They lost everything
The day before the fire, Sales had left work early because of an unexpected staffing change. That night, he was having dinner a mile away from his home when a concerned neighbor texted him about a fire.
“He could see the fire from his back deck,” he said of his neighbor.
At that point, Sales said he hadn’t received an official evacuation order, but he and Chelsea got their two dogs – a bloodhound and a French mastiff – and packed a few belongings before leaving for the night.
The next morning, a sigh of relief for the couple – their house was still standing but the threat of the fire still loomed.
“We’d done stuff around the house like we were just going to be gone for a couple days,” recalled Sales. “We watered the garden, watered the house plants and, I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I folded some clothes and put some dishes away and not really thinking about grabbing things that were really important to us.”
By nightfall, a fellow firefighter brought the devastating news to the couple: the blaze was too hot, and the firefighters battling the flames in their neighborhood were getting pushed out.
“That night, I knew it was gone,” recalled Sales. “Going up there the next morning was just for confirmation.”
The community extends a hand
The couple lost their home, and with it many family heirlooms including a record player, a chessboard belonging to Sales’ grandfather and a pocketknife Sales received as a birthday gift from his uncle.
Nevertheless, Sales says they are one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve seen people lose loved ones and lose family members and pets, and that is way worse than just losing some family heirlooms,” he said. “I have everything that I love with me and that’s what’s really important.”
Sales credits the community for helping him and Chelsea get through this tough time by donating clothes, money and furniture. One friend even posted a GoFundMe page that has raised nearly $90,000 for the couple.
“I’ve been showered with love and support from, from all angles of my life and from a lot of people that I’ve never met before,” he said.