written by becca nelson sankey | photos by becca nelson sankey & provided by the san angelo
It was the picture seen around the world: four smiling firemen in uniform, hands stuffed in their pockets as they stood before a white San Angelo Fire Department fire truck. Last November, SAFD Chief Todd Sanford posted the photo to Facebook to ask the community to pray for Battalion Chief Johnny Fisher and firefighters Jade Hughes, Blake Foster and Sontos Chavez before the men deployed to Southern California to assist in fighting the Woolsey Fire.
San Angelo –and the world –delivered.
“People praying for our safety, we could feel it,” Hughes said in December, less than a month after the men returned from the wildfire. “There were times we were in some sketchy situations driving to California or in the mountains there. If Blake (who drove the truck) sneezed, we were falling off a 100, 200-foot cliff. I really believe people lifting us up in prayer kept us safe.” People all over the world viewed the photo 9 million times, and media stations shared it on television. “Social media can be an ugly, bad thing,” Hughes said. “But this time it was awesome.”
Hughes, Foster, Chavez and Fisher have more than 52 years combined service with the San Angelo Fire Department, as well as a bevy of licenses and certifications to their credit. Their
experience was the reason Chief Sanford selected them out of 150 San Angelo firefighters for the California deployment, in which nine strike teams throughout Texas (in addition to individuals from throughout the nation) mobilized to California on behalf of the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System, which mobilizes resources in times of disaster. “This was our very first TIFMAS deployment,” Hughes said. “We went from learning how to play T-ball to the major leagues real fast as a department. I’d fought wildfires in California before, so I had an idea of what we were getting into, but you’re never 100 percent certain until you get there.”
Nothing, as it turned out, could have prepared the men for the total devastation they encountered: upended telephone poles; blocked off roads; abandoned, burned-out vehicles; concrete slabs where homes once stood; and mass destruction as far as the eye could see. “You’d be miles from any house and see a car in a ravine and not know what happened to the people, not know where they were,” Foster said. According to the website for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, as of December 17, 2018, 96,949 acres had burned, 1,500 structures were destroyed, 341 structures were damaged, and three civilians died in the Woolsey Fire in Los Angles County and Ventura County. The Woolsey Fire was one of multiple fires, including the well-known Camp Fire that began burning in California on November 8, 2018.
The men were deployed for 10 days, with two days designated for the drive there and two for the turn trip. They were instructed to leave with enough supplies to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, so they slept in tents the first two nights. “We were prepared for that,” Hughes said. “What we weren’t prepared for is that in our 40-degree sleeping bags, fully clothed, we were going to freeze to death. It got down to 20 degrees in the mountains.” During the day, the men worked closely with other teams, doing everything from mop-up in hot spots that hadn’t yet caught fire, to building and protecting the fire line, preparing properties for re-inhabitation, and fire suppression. The latter was particularly difficult because the treacherous terrain made it impossible for crews to bring their trucks –and water –close to the fire sites.
Fuel, heat and oxygen are the elements needed to make a fire. To fight a wildland fire in hilly and mountainous terrain, firefighters must find ways to eliminate one of those elements without water, their weapon of choice. “As structural firefighters, your life is built around fighting fires with water,” Chavez said. “Out there, your mechanical advantage is your hands and tools and the guy next to you.” But the on-the-job knowledge the men gleaned working in situations they weren’t accustomed to was invaluable, Chavez said, adding that they learned everything from the types of tools needed to fight wildland fires and how to carry them, to cloud formations and how weather affects fire. “Every day was a classroom experience –sitting on a rock or on the side of the road,” he said.
Their last day in California was the first day the area was repopulated, Hughes said. “The last day was helping people integrate back into their homes,” he said. “We were there to love and support these people, to help lighten the load for Ventura County and the city of Malibu, when residents were returning to see if their homes were still standing. Despite the stress and trauma, the residents were “the nicest people,” Chavez said. “We’d go to the city to get fuel and supplies. Their city is burned up and they’re asking us, ‘What can we do for you?’ The ones whose homes made it through the fire were offering us showers and food. Knowing the struggle, the stress they were going through, and they were still there to help us. That’s heart-warming.”
“Everywhere we went, everybody was so thankful we were there. It was overwhelming,” Foster agreed. Even on the way to California, he added, people would pass their truck on I-10 and wave and take pictures “because they knew where we were going.” Despite the expectation they would be gone 14 days, the men were sent home early –just in time for Thanksgiving with their families –once the fire was contained. “I was excited to come home and be with my family for Thanksgiving, but I still felt like we needed to stay to help more,” Hughes said. “We don’t like to leave people in need.I guarantee they wish they could’ve kept us, but they felt it was more important that we go home in time for the holidays.”
The ability to return safely to a warm home and be with their families (a luxury so many residents in California didn’t have) during a holiday that’s synonymous with being thankful was a heartbreaking irony not lost on the firemen. “Our families have to give and sacrifice in order for us to be able to leave for these deployments. It is really tough on them,” Fisher said. “I’m grateful that my family was willing to allow me this opportunity to do this; I know the other guys are as well.”
The City of San Angelo and the men’s SAFD brothers also made the trip possible, they said. “I had several texts (while we were gone) from brother firemen saying, ‘If your family needs anything, let us know,’” Foster said. “You don’t have to worry because you know they’ve got it handled. When asked if they would do it all again, not a single fireman hesitated with an affirmative answer. “In a heartbeat,” Hughes said immediately. “When do we leave?” Foster echoed.
“It was great to be a part of this experience, working with other firefighters around the nation,” Fisher said. “The main thing that we all have in common is the willingness to help when in need. It was neat to see so many different people from all walks of life come together for a common goal. I feel I’m very blessed in so many ways and that I have a job I love and get to do the things we do.” †
To donate relief aid to those affected by the California wildfires visit their website
or mail checks to:
California Community Foundation
221 S. Figuerosa St., Suite 400
Los Angeles, CA, 90012
Donations are tax-deductible, and 100 percent of proceeds benefit organizations helping California’s wildfire-stricken communities.