Editor’s Note: This story was first published on Jan. 8, 2018. It is reprinted here as part of our year end coverage.
By Kate Cagle
The wildfire spread like the devil skipping stones.
Sparks flew through hot Santa Ana winds saturated with ash, bounced off metal gutters and wedged into roof shingles where they smoldered into a blaze.
Looking back, the handful of Santa Monica firefighters who drove into the midnight inferno on Dec. 4 had no idea they were headed to the start of the biggest wildfire in California history. When they reached Ventura County there was no command post yet. No “central com.” No disaster declaration. A 50 acre brush rapidly spread out of control as families evacuated, packing up their loved ones and leaving everything else to fate.
Local firefighter Dominick Bei refers to that night as “the first 36,” as in the first 36 hours of what turned into twelve sleepless days battling the Thomas Fire.
“Every house was completely engulfed in flames,” Bei said, who had never seen anything like it in his near decade of service. “Every corner you turned there was a new house on fire.”
The fire was spreading too quickly to save every house. Sheer instinct directed decisions over where to point hoses filled with precious water.
“We were just taking initiative and going to homes that were on fire next to homes that could be saved,” said Captain Johnny Maccini who led the initial attack. “I wish we could have done more, saved more property.”
A month later, the Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures – 700 of them family homes – and charred 440 square miles of coastal foothills and national forest through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A 32-year-old San Diego firefighter was later killed by the heat and smoke. A woman died fleeing the flames. Last week, President Donald Trump declared it a major disaster.
But to the twelve Santa Monica firefighters who were there on the ground, the disaster is in the details as the heat melted cars and reduced cherished family photos and heirlooms to ash.
“You see a lot of disturbing things,” Maccini said. “It’s the holidays and there’s Christmas trees and presents inside these houses and we’re watching them burn up.”
Maccini and Bei were part of a strike team from Santa Monica, Culver City, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles that responded to a request for mutual aid when the fire began. Santa Monica sent two engine companies, Engine 3 and Engine 8, along with a deputy chief, a battalion chief, a captain and an additional firefighter – adding up to twelve total personnel.
As captain, it had ultimately been Maccini’s decision to bring along the rookie, Zach Mendoza, that night. It was his very first day as a Santa Monica firefighter.
“We knew he had some brush experience,” Maccini said, of the recruit from Cal-Fire. “There’s only one way to get experience and that’s through doing it. It’s better than any other teacher. You go twelve days straight and don’t sleep for 36 hours, that’s how you get experience.”
“At the time it was just a series of tasks,” Mendoza said. “A series of orders we had to do. But when you walk into homes and you see Christmas trees and presents and pictures it personalized it. It made it more real.”
Even the more seasoned Santa Monica firefighters remark those first 36 hours are ones they will never forget. The sight of the destruction, the feel of the heat, even the taste of a few spoonfuls of a single spaghetti MRE Bei had stashed away in the truck that provided the only meal during the initial fight. On Tuesday, they will be honored by the City Council for their “fortitude, dedication and valor,” along with firefighters sent to the Skirball and Creek fires.
Maccini says they were just doing their jobs.
“I feel honored to be out there with these guys, watching them deal with physical, mental and emotional stresses you can’t imagine. Things you encounter in war time situations,” Maccini said. “These folks who lost their houses, who right now they’re still trying to figure out where they’re going to live. They had a torn down holiday season. These people need the help and the attention.”