Chief Wilson Looks Back

by Mark Scaramella, December 27, 2013

[Colin Wilson interviewed by Mark Scaramella]

You started volunteering when?

I don't even remember when I first started volunteering as a firefighter. I think it was in the early 80s with Homer Mannix. He put me on the reserve firefighter list when he was trying to get something started in Yorkville. There wasn't much activity at first. He was just trying to get people in Yorkville interested. But nothing much happened until he left the department and Dave Hutchinson took over as Chief. He found an old 2.5-ton military truck with a big water tank on the back and an open cab. There was virtually nothing on it for firefighting. It didn't have a latching top, just a manhole. When we went down a steep hill water would slosh out of it and wash over us like a tidal wave. It actually filled the floorboards on a steep downhill and you had to open the doors to let the water drain.

In those days we had Dave Martinez [who has since moved up to the Shasta area and returned to his Native American roots] and Gavin, the diesel mechanic [who later had a run-in with then-Chief Colleary, unfortunately, and quit the department]. There was Connie Diamond and her daughter Renee. Renee was an attractive 19-year-old who showed up for her first fire with short-shorts and a haltertop. I don't know exactly what she thought she was there for. Rod and Anita DeWitt joined. (Their daughter Angela is now with the department.) And Anita's sister Susan, and Bob and Lois Wallace. Bob let the department use his barn for that old military truck. Bob and Gavin and Rod worked at the fire equipment outlet in Cloverdale. Over the years and they helped outfit trucks for the fire department.

It seems like wherever there was a barn or a carport with an engine, they eventually became fire stations.

Yes. That happened in Rancho Navarro and Holmes Ranch and a couple other places.

Do you recall any major fires in those first few years?

I will never forget the fire at Guy Pronsolino's barn. He had a logging yarder in a barn on the Yorkville Ranch and a shop in another barn where he maintained his logging equipment. One night about 2am we got a call that there was a fire in one of those two big barns that fronted Highway 128. The fire had burned most of the bottom and through the roof of one of them. They had a lot of hay in them. It had spread to the second barn and it was fully involved. In about half an hour we had surrounded the buildings to prevent the spread — there wasn't much we could do about the barns. All of a sudden there was this giant explosion. Apparently, a 55-gallon drum of diesel had actually cooked off and the top was blown off and the diesel fuel was blown way up into the air like a mushroom cloud which then flash-fired about 100 feet or more in every direction and went over everybody's head maybe 30 or 40 feet high. One giant sky-full of flame!

Another incident I will never forget was an accident on the curve on Highway 128 near Bob Lawson's house. There have been several serious accidents there even though there's room in the shoulder to slow down and recover. People go too fast into that curve and run off the pavement, then they over-correct and sometimes flip down into the creekbed. One afternoon a vehicle with two couples in it did just that. They must have been going pretty fast. They somehow launched themselves off the road, turned sideways, hit a tree, spun around and then landed upside down in the creekbed. When we first got to them the two people on the passenger or impact side were both dead, crushed. The woman in the backseat on the driver side was still in the seatbelt and suspended upside down in the overturned vehicle. The driver of the car was not hurt badly. The gas tank was leaking into the creekbed. There was a strong fuel smell and we were afraid the car could explode at any minute with those people in it. The driver was able to get out on his own. I was trying to help the woman in the back seat who was still alive, hanging upside down from the seatbelt. I don't think she was fully conscious. But she was alive and seemed a little responsive. There was a leg hanging down from the upside down car floor and I assumed it was from one of the other passengers who had died. I got in there and cut the seatbelt and then I suddenly realized that the leg was hers! It had been broken off and was laying down parallel to her body. It was very gory. I will never forget that. She drifted into unconsciousness and her face started to swell. By the time we finally got her untangled and out of the car she had died — she died in front of me as we were trying to pull her out. The driver survived, but he had basically screwed up and caused the death of his wife, his best friend, and his best friend's wife. About a year later we heard that the driver had committed suicide. That was very traumatic. There have a few other fatalities at that turn over the years which were almost as gruesome but they did not result in three deaths.

There was that high speed crash in Philo in the early 2000s when that car with four young Mexican vineyard workers hit that big oak tree?

The car essentially broke in half. Only a small amount of sheet metal held the two pieces together. We cut that and took the rear half to the Philo Post Office parking lot. The victims were well known in the area and word got out and a good-sized crowd had arrived at the scene. The front half of the car was in a deep ditch and it had started to rain. We brought the tow truck around and towed the front half of the car out of there. When we started to move one of the bodies, probably the driver… Oh, that was so gross. His body almost fell apart and a large piece of his brain squirted out into the ditch and we had to recover it before it was washed downstream. I sort of put his body back together and brought it back to where the special CHP unit was set up. They were called in because it was a multiple fatality accident. So we were instructed to leave the scene alone until that team arrived from Sacramento hours after the accident. We turned the scene over to them and I went back to Boonville. Later that afternoon we got a call at the fire station saying there were still body parts down in that ditch area. I went back out there and looked around but apparently other volunteers had already picked up the pieces of bones and flesh.

It sounds like the traumatic traffic accidents stick out more in your memory than the fires do?

There are a lot more of those than there are fires. Certainly some of the fire responses I went to were exciting. Things that happened on strike team responses that were even more exciting. But it's just not as intense as the accident scenes.

The Lightning Complex fires were about as exciting as it gets.

The Lightning fires in 2008 were overwhelming because there were so many of them in a short time. We had six fires started within the district. We fought the first one all night and those firefighters were on crew rest at the Boonville station when the next morning arrived and we discovered the other ones popping up. Once the sun came up the new fires we're putting off smoke that could be seen. So we started getting reports. Fortunately, because we had all the apparatus and people we’ve built up over the years, we were able to spot those fires and get responses rolling to each one. We had five of the first six out in that first day, some in a few hours. We got a report of a fire that was back over behind Clow Ridge. So I sent an engine out to recon that at the end of Nash Mill Road. On the way, we saw a bigger fire burning on MRC's property across the valley from there. So we immediately spotted that fire and contacted MRC and sent an apparatus out and started working that fire. It turned out that the fire we were fighting was not the fire that was reported. So there was a brief dispute about which was which, but it didn't matter because both of them needed to be put out.

Newly recruited firefighter Bob Rowland ended up dying during the lightning complex fire and that was one of the most depressing moments of my tenure as chief. That consumed most of my time for the next five months. It was almost two weeks after the fires had started when that happened. He had been assigned to a fire I was working on to simply do look out because he was new and didn't have much training. We didn't want him to do any actual firefighting. We had that fire pretty well under control but there was one fire down in a gulch with a hot burning pocket maybe 300 feet below the road. We laid some hose down there and try to get it sealed off so that it wouldn't blow up and breach our line. It was very intense and hot. A firefighter called me from the landing and told me that Bob was having some difficulty, not feeling well, and she was worried about him. So I went back out and Bob was sitting next to the road. He said he was just tired but otherwise fine and needed to rest a little bit. I put him in my truck and drove him back up to the landing and handed him over to an EMT and told her to remove him from the fire area to one of the lookout points and do a full evaluation. The smoke was very thick. Flying conditions were impossible. No helicopter could get in there. We couldn't fight the fire with helicopters because of the near-zero visibility. The EMT drove him down in her private vehicle and he was still not feeling well so he was transferred to the ambulance and they took him to Ukiah. He arrived in the middle of the afternoon and he saw a cardiologist there who said he was not having a cardiac event. But he was in the ICU. At 1 o'clock in the morning though we got a call saying that he had died of a heart attack. It just completely floored everybody. Bob was very nice guy. I still can't talk about some of the details but there were a few things he had not disclosed to us when he applied to be a volunteer and that played a part in what happened.

I was very proud of the department's response to that large series of fires and then this terrible event sort of took the air out of everything. Bob's death put a shadow over everything. I can't think about those lightning complex fires without thinking about Bob Roland.

Any particular structure fires that stand out?

We’ve had our share of structure fires in the Valley over the years. They tend to come in two flavors: first are those where a neighbor sees smoke or fire and calls it in. In those cases by the time you get there, there’s usually not much to do other than keep the fire from spreading. The other category is those where you actually get there in time to have a chance to save the structure. Those are almost all memorable and exciting.

There was one fire in downtown Boonville that was started when some roofers leaked some hot tar down into a house which flared up. It was reported early and we got to it pretty fast and were able to save the house, holding the fire to the attic alone. There was a kitchen fire at a house near the fairgrounds that was contained to the kitchen and the house was saved. Years ago Norm Clow’s house caught fire from a candle that burned down. We save most of that house.

We saved a house on Highland Ranch by limiting it to the second story. The fire out by Geraldine Rose's house off Peachland Road was kept away from the nearby structures. We’ve had our failures of course, but there have been quite a few successes. If you get a fair shot at a structure fire when the report is filed early and it's still a room and contents fire -- it takes 15 minutes typically to get anything in place to start fighting the fire. So fires will advance before we can get there. Most of the houses that have burned or in cases where the structure was pretty well gone by the time we got there.

I've noticed that people don't really appreciate how much work goes in to mop up after a fire.

That's when the work really starts. Putting the fire out doesn't really take that long. But afterward, we have volunteers doing all that dirty work after a fire. Not everybody does it the way it ought to be done. One of the worst things that can happen to a fire apartment is to successfully put out a structure fire and then a few hours later have it burn down from a rekindle or something you didn't catch. It's very tedious — opening walls and ceilings, checking every nook and cranny in the area of the fire to make sure you got everything. Moving stuff around, furniture, other bulky items, and whatever debris has accumulated because of the fire itself. Structure fire mop up is the worst kind of work in firefighting.

What else do you look on as accomplishments?

One satisfying aspect of the job for me was having the financing to build the department up, acquiring new apparatus and building new stations. Support from the community made both of those things possible. We have received very generous donations, volunteer labor, donated materials. Most of the work in Rancho Navarro was done by residents there who were not members of the department. We have some very skilled contractors and carpenters in the Valley. So we get a real bang for the buck because the tax dollars are supplemented by donations and volunteers. In my time as Chief we've had the new Rancho Navarro Station, the Boonville firehouse, the new Philo fire station, and Holmes Ranch. We have our eye on Signal Ridge but it's hard to get volunteers in that area to staff the station so that’s a problem that’s not solved now.

I think we also need to do something about the area at around the intersection of Highway 128 and Mountain House Road. You'd be surprised how much development has occurred out there and it's pretty far from Anderson Valley or Cloverdale.

It seems like there are some new faces showing up lately.

Andres [Avila] deserves some credit for that. He is a young dynamic leader and younger people gravitate more to him than to me. I did a study of a few years ago trying to figure out what makes a successful volunteer — who sticks around for 10 years or more? I sent out questionnaires around the county to people who have been volunteers for at least 10 years. The profile that came back was people in their early 40s, married with kids, own their own property and possibly self-employed. That profile tends to stick with the department for a long time and they are well worth the investment in training and experience. If you can recruit those people without having them burn out, they will become mainstays of the department for years.

Would you say that Anderson Valley has more women volunteers than any other department?

Yes. Anderson Valley has a significant percentage of women actively volunteering. I'm proud of that. One area that I've never been happy with is the low level of participation from members of the Mexican community. Hopefully Andres will be able to improve that situation. Given the demographics of Andersen Valley we should have at 10 or 15 Mexican volunteers. We need to tap that resource pool because as it stands, we provide this service but we don't get the level of participation that we need. We can do better in that area. It's possible that that's improving. More and more of the Mexican people in the Valley have grown up here and went to school here. They don't have any language issue. And more of them are sticking around. We have done some recruiting at the high school but as much as that might help the kid, it doesn't help the department much because there's a good chance they'll leave the Valley even if they become interested in firefighting.

Volunteers present unique management challenges, don’t they?

It’s harder to manage a volunteer fire department because you can’t just order people do things. Sometimes people just don't work out and you have to tell them that it's best if they just separate or take a break. But it can be a long and painful process. Fortunately that hasn't happened very often; maybe once or twice. And of course they still lived in this same small valley and you see them periodically. There's one guy who won't speak to me anymore. That's too bad. Another case where I decided I had to give someone an ultimatum and expected it to go badly. Finally I suggested that maybe they take a leave of absence or back off or while. So it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be.

Do you want to single anyone out for help and support while you were Chief?

There are a lot of people who helped and supported me. I hesitate to name names. But the officers in the various stations were a big help. Jim Minton being Captain of the Boonville Station came in and helped numerous times. When Jim says he’ll do something it gets done, and done right. Jan Wasson-Smith. Roy Laird. Terry Ferrelly who doesn't even live in the district has helped a lot too. When something serious developed he was always around to help. Some board members have done a lot for the Department too. Diane Paget who took the lead on getting the benefit assessment passed. Andrea LaCampagna during the lightning complex fires. Gene Herr has made useful contributions and is a good critic. And others.

What’s it like being retired?

It's a great relief not to be responsible for everything. The burden of dealing with mistakes, equipment breakdowns, people getting hurt, staffing problems — when you're the one in charge you have to make sure things get done. I still worry about some things of course, but I'm not responsible, thank God. It's wonderful. I also like not having to go an every call.

The main thing I miss is probably the same thing other volunteers like about this work — the sense of pride and accomplishment in a successful save, a well-handled accident or incident. The satisfaction of being a volunteer comes on the occasions when everything goes well in a serious situation when someone really needs help — a medical event, a fire, an accident. If you know that you made a real difference in somebody's life, there's nothing like it! I still have some of that as a volunteer. That's why I volunteered in the first place and that’s why I'm going to keep volunteering whenever I can. It's almost like a drug, once you get that rush of accomplishment, really helping someone or saving something. You can actually go overboard when it becomes an obsession. You have to make time for your family. You can't just walk away from your family for every call. It takes a while to develop that balance.

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