The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Richard Lefever
For The Sentinel 

Local firm ships out to aid in wildfire fight


November 13, 2019

UP IN SMOKE: The Kincaid Fire in California destroyed an area twice the size of San Francisco. Goldendale's Bishop Services was in the thick of it.

This story is a chronology of Bishop Services' (BSI) recent trip to the Kincade Fire in the Napa Valley Wine Country of Northern California. As you read it, you'll realize that change is a constant. I have learned through years of being associated with a disaster support company that you always maintain a smile no matter what happens and remember that "Everything you do is subject to change."

Calls for equipment to support the raging wildfires in California started trickling into the BSI dispatch office way before dawn on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 26. Within minutes the trickle had grown into a steady stream that soon overwhelmed our lonely dispatcher. Immediately, we found ourselves facing a desperate need for additional truck drivers in order to transport the vital equipment to the fire incident on schedule. To complicate this already desperate need, we needed drivers with valid tanker and doubles endorsements. Those are rare commodities on a normal day and especially difficult on a pleasant Saturday morning, a day filled with professional sports events and with hunting season still open. After a few phone calls, 12 CDL drivers complete with proper endorsements miraculously materialized. These sympathetic drivers were willing to instantly drop their weekend plans, pack a bag, and immediately jump into a truck for the long drive south. We weren't sure yet whether we were headed to the Napa Valley fires or traveling on to southern California. We had no idea how long we'd be gone or if we'd have cell phone communication because of PG&E's power outages. By the noon hour, the first convoy of semi-trucks, vacuum trucks, and diesel-powered pick-ups pulling trailers had been assembled and fueled and were motoring south towards California.

Passing through the Dunsmuir, California, Port of Entry, we received official notification that we had been assigned to the ferocious Kincade Fire in Napa Valley wine country. This was Sonoma County's second major fire in only three years. In 2017, Bishop Services supported a 3,000-man PG&E power restoration base camp in Santa Rosa. Approaching Corning, California dispatch directed us to hold up for the night at an area truck stop. She explained the Kincade Fire had just burned through our pre-designated staging area, and parking in the area would be next to impossible. A replacement site wouldn't be determined until next morning. Late the following afternoon, we commenced setup procedures at evacuation camps from our newly assigned staging area in Vallejo, California. For those familiar with driving in California, consider the task of navigating the streets and highways of California in semi-trucks without the aid of electricity or streetlights.

Our equipment was distributed to various evacuation support sites along a 100-mile path, from the City of Napa in the south to Lakeport in the north. Sonoma County OES officials and the City of Windsor Fire Department had requested a mobile shower unit and additional sinks to support a continually growing list of fire fighters assembling at a Windsor fire station. Windsor is a very upscale neighborhood about 65 miles north of San Francisco along the 101 Freeway. Fifty or 60 additional fire personnel were already inhabiting the small neighborhood fire station designed for a maximum crew of 12. Many of the visiting fire personnel had been working overtime and hadn't experienced a warm shower since the fire started three days earlier.

The City of Windsor was kept secure during the evacuation order by armed guards posted at all entrances into the city. As we attempted our initial entry into Windsor, with our semi-trucks parked and blocking one lane of the freeway, we were met by a friendly young deputy who took his security job very seriously. He refused us entry even though we had emergency mobile shower unit posted on each semi-trailer and the leading tractor had a front placard stating "Emergency Response Vehicle." His reasoning was, the area is evacuated, and nobody needs a shower in Windsor. Fearing a serious confrontation was rapidly brewing with this young deputy, we opted to move up the freeway to the next security check point. A seasoned CHP officer met us; without any discussion he quickly assembled a CHP escort team and with lights flashing led us to the appropriate fire station. The fire had burned within two blocks of that station and was still moving aggressively. The station was making plans to evacuate. With a change of plans finalized, our friendly CHP officer escorted us to Windsor Fire Station 3 where we were able to set up. Although probably childish on my part, I couldn't help but smile and wave as we passed by the original deputy who refused us entry. In that deputy's defense, we later learned California Governor Gavin Newson and other state officials were in the area assessing damage and delivering food packets to the displaced at a near-by evacuation center. Added security measures had been requested for the governor and his staff. Additionally, several individuals, intent on looting the city, had slipped into the evacuation area with the media rush following the governor and his officials. As it is with every disaster, looting is a constant problem.

One of my most amusing moments happened in a mall parking lot on our trip to Windsor. Power was off to all buildings, and not a single streetlight worked for blocks around. A young couple drove up to a car charging station and attempted to charge their electric car. They were completely oblivious to what was happening around them. Several cuss words ensued, roughly cursing the car that no longer worked. "Somebody needs to fix this, now! We need our electric car!" It was better than television.

Joy Cunningham was a native of Goldendale, and today she lives in Windsor, California. She was among the first residents in the city who had to evacuate. Joy was familiar with the evacuation routine; only two years ago, she faced severe fire damage only a few blocks from her home. Joy-also my cousin-sent me this text on her return home after the evacuation order was lifted: "Our home is a mile from Fire Station 1. Our neighborhood was where firefighters took up a defensive stand and successfully fought off the fire. We are so thankful to the heroics of the firefighters. I really thought our house was a goner. Instead, basically no damage."

Bishop's other support units were scattered throughout Napa Valley, operating at veteran centers and red cross evacuation sites.

The massive Kincade Fire eventually burned into history, becoming Sonoma County's largest recorded fire scorching 76,825 acres (121 square miles) or an area twice the size of San Francisco. It also had one of the largest evacuation orders ever issued in California, leaving 180,000 residents homeless and powerless. As the historic 80-mph hurricane-force winds driving the colossal fire died down, 5,245 fire personnel quickly contained the monster. Nearly 300 structures were lost, but fortunately no lives were lost.

Our equipment has left Napa Valley, replaced by a crew of over 6,000 electrical workers pouring in from all over the country to help restore power to fire devastated residents.

As I'm headed home, most of our equipment is now staged at our federal DDP in Silver Springs, Nevada, awaiting possible dispatch to another southern California wildfire. A replacement crew is staying with the equipment while most of the original crew, including myself, are headed home.


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