Chris Kam

One of the remarkable things about this country is that, quite often, the most extraordinary people appear in the worst of times. They don’t arrive out of a desire to be recognized or because they have to — it is their undying love of community that drives them to do whatever it takes to help others.

I grew up in a small town in Northern California that prides itself on being the “Chicken Capital of the World.” Its name was bestowed by the indigenous Coast Miwok who, realizing that the area rests on the backside of a hill, eloquently decided to name it Hill Backside (though we still refer to it untranslated as Petaluma). Today, it remains a close-knit community where most locals are acquainted and regularly bump into each other walking along the iconic boulevard or shopping at the local market. The mix of lifelong farmers, cheerful retirees and young families gives it a charm that is increasingly rare. Yet everyone that lives in Petaluma and the surrounding “Wine Country” is well aware of the most pressing risk: wildfires.

They come in bursts, usually without much warning, when a power line goes down or someone driving down Highway 101 throws a cigarette out their window. Living on a horse ranch, my family always had a long list of contacts and responsibilities for when our animals might have to evacuate with us. Unfortunately, many others are helpless during these disasters and live without the luxury of a backup plan. It is for them especially that the extraordinary people I wrote of above come out of the woodwork.

With the pandemic forcing my junior year to be a virtual one, I found an opportunity to catch these people in the act — though I never could have predicted the chaotic and impactful weeks to come. I joined a documentary course taught by Charles Musser, called up high school senior Chris Kam (an old friend who happens to be one of the most gifted cinematographers I’ve ever met) and started writing emails to every wildfire-related organization I knew. The goal was to make a film documenting the acts of heroism performed by everyday people when disaster strikes. Within a few days, we had our contacts and awaited the moment to spring into action. It was late August and, despite the typical peak month of California wildfires still lying ahead, the state had already surpassed the record for acres burned. It was only a matter of time before the fires hit close to home.

At 6 a.m. on Sept. 27, I woke up to a call from another friend, Danny Drohan. After high school, when many of us spared no time chasing degrees and focusing on whatever might best serve our interests, he thought selflessly and joined our local volunteer fire department. Back in September, he was getting ready to put an end to his fire career and move on to college, but not before this year’s work was done. Usually, a call from Danny at 6 a.m. meant he had a new idea for a band or olive oil business or a plan for how we would create the Icelandic Air Force, but this time was different. He knew about my documentary and warned me that something big was about to happen. “Tell Chris to get his camera. You’re going to want to get over here right now,” he told me. There was a relatively small fire in Napa, about 45 minutes away, that everyone knew would be out of control in a matter of hours. Sure enough, a text from Chris, who had been religiously monitoring fire radio, soon followed and we were on our way.

Chris and I arrived to smoke-covered vineyards and rows of curious locals parked in front of a makeshift police barrier. While law enforcement had been receptive to our film, we admittedly did not have official press passes or other credentials. Luckily, our yellow fire-resistant jackets, my dad’s Ford F-150 and — as I like to think — our incredible charm got us through the strategically parked Napa County Sheriff vehicles. We drove past burning street signs and rows of fire engines, eventually arriving at the house where Danny and his fellow firefighters were staged. It was an impressively built modern home that was unfortunately surrounded by brush. The owners had evacuated earlier that morning but had left their Ferrari parked in the driveway. I took this as a sign that they would be all right no matter the damage. We caught up with the fire crew, recorded footage and headed off to what was at that point the epicenter of the disaster — now dubbed the Glass Fire in reference to a nearby mountain.

Danny explaining the fire’s path. (Photo by Chris Kam)

Chris and I continued on a side road, at a safe distance from the flames but at times completely engulfed in smoke. Suddenly, the smoke dissipated and we came across a small house still untouched. In its yard was one man on a tractor. He was completely alone and making a fire line to protect the property. Figuring this must be the defiant owner, I waited for him to finish to capture a great story. To our surprise, the man was not even a neighbor, but a local road worker named Dave Cardwell. While passing through, he found a key in the tractor and decided to give the house of people he had never met a fighting chance. Dave saw nothing remarkable in his effort and was incredibly nonchalant, even as the flames neared. The house is still standing today.

Dave Cardwell plowing a fire line near the Glass Fire. (Photo by Chris Kam

Soon after we left the area, as I was contemplating how I would tell my dad that his truck now smelled like a ’70s jazz lounge, I got a call from one of our contacts. Shelina Moreda is a professional motorcycle racer who competes all over the world, but growing up on a dairy farm gave her another purpose: saving animals in danger. Her organization, NorCal Livestock Evac (which she adamantly reminds us would be nothing without its powerful force of volunteers), has rescued everything from horses to emus and was one of the first groups on scene at the Glass Fire. Now, she told me that two of her rescuers, Tony and Cory, were on the other side of a nearby hill trying to wrangle sheep into a trailer.

At this point, air tankers were dropping thousands of pounds of retardant on the fire less than a mile away. We hurried over to the rescuers’ position and captured their evacuation of a donkey and 12 chickens. Local sheep, however, were not too fond of a road trip and took off. With the fire now covering tens of thousands of acres, Tony and Corey had to make a decision — keep searching for the few sheep or rescue many more animals elsewhere. They made the tough call to go with the latter. 

For the next few hours, the two men packed their trailers, even getting a very resistant miniature donkey named Willie Nelson to cozy up next to the uncomfortable chicken flock. The men asked for no payment or thanks — in fact, the only thing I heard either of them ask for the entire day was that Chris and I capture Tony’s good side. We did.

Tony (left) and Casey (right) tracking down one last chicken. On the top left, smoke provides a dangerous timetable. (Photo by Chris Kam)

The sun was going down and I decided to call it quits after 10 long but fascinating hours. On our way out, we reunited with my friend Danny. He had been in the area since four in the morning with no rest and little food, covered in ash and dirt. Instead of preparing to protect a house, he was now sifting through inches of ruined soil and dealing with minor hot spots. In a few hours, he would finally be relieved, but his own free will would be back on scene not long after.

Days went by and the Glass Fire grew with little containment. What was once 20 acres of burning brush was now 40,000 acres of flames and ash. A local effort became a national headline. Chris, who at the beginning lived far away from the fire, was now a few houses down from lost homes. He had every right to pull out of the project, but ended up rallying me to head back into the area right away. 

One morning, we went over to Fairwinds Estate Winery, which had been reduced to a charred sign and a pile of rubble. Members of the Fremont Fire Department had tried to save the buildings days before, but as they became surrounded by flames, a water pump broke and forced them to leave with seconds to spare. In those final moments, aware that the building was doomed and the entire livelihood of its owners about to be in jeopardy, they placed themselves beyond reasonable risk to take down the American flag. 

Despite the captain’s ability to capture the moment on his iPhone, their act was not a photo opportunity or even a patriotic episode. It was an effort to give the winery’s owners something to hold on to — a piece of what was lost and a symbol of hope with which to rebuild. Chris and I were now standing in front of that barren flagpole; the flames had run their course. In a few moments, the firefighters would return to present the flag. We stood waiting alongside the winery’s general manager, a Scottish immigrant who also managed to sneak through the sheriff’s barricade (his tactic was blasting country music). 

The fire engine arrived among a motorcade of local news agencies eager to get the feel-good story of the year. The handoff was touching and heartfelt, but within seconds of its completion, all of the reporters vanished. They got the shot and their job was done. Only the firefighters, winery owners, Chris and I were left. With the single active camera being operated by a student, everyone felt much more at ease. As we toured the facility, light-hearted jokes were made by all. The owners, whose property was all but obliterated, immediately began proposing fundraising efforts for the firefighters. They offered wine to the team members (which they politely refused due to protocol) and said their goodbyes.

A Fremont firefighter takes down an American flag in front of the burning Fairwinds Estate Winery. (Photo courtesy of the Fremont Fire Department)

Looking back on those few tumultuous days provides a very necessary perspective. This year has brought enough hardship and pain to last a generation — a pandemic, a national reckoning over racial injustice, a recession and, closer to home, the worst fire season in California’s history. But through the smoke of tragedy often emerged kindness beyond belief. Firefighters who work double shifts with no sleep, neighbors who risk their own well-being for people they do not even know and animal evacuators who are willing to drive into a burning forest to rescue a single horse – they all give me hope. If these people remain all around us today, there must be something to look forward to tomorrow.

Will Twomey | will.twomey@yale.edu