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How Tim Gray helped to save Sonoma’s Mission Highlands

As 40-to-50-foot flames, so loud they sounded like jet engines, burned wildly in the hills just above Mission Highlands, firefighters saved the neighborhood by bulldozing a firebreak and setting a controlled back burn that went to within two feet of the houses on High Road. They were guided through the smoky night by a 20-year resident of the neighborhood with a lifetime of knowledge about the twisting, narrow streets and dirt back roads – Tim Gray, the ’dozer scout.

The fire was headed right down the Agua Caliente Canyon and the backburn stopped it, saving not only Mission Highlands, but most likely Boyes Springs, as fire would have easily reached the tops of Siesta Way, Calle del Arroyo, and Lomita Avenue.

“It would have been there, 100 percent,” said Sean Jerry, Cal Fire Glen Ellen division supervisor, who helped orchestrate the plan and set the burn. “If it got into the neighborhoods it would have been a mess.”

While this incident, as well as many others during the October fires, was a monumental feat by multiple firefighters, Gray, a general contractor, is a local resident who made a real difference. Driving his appropriately red Dodge four-wheel-drive pickup, he showed Jerry and a San Diego-based strike team where the bulldozers could get through. “I was following him and he gave me the lay of the land,” Jerry said. “If I didn’t have Tim up there it may have been a different story.”

Gray, like most who live in the wooded hillsides above the Valley, understands the risk of fire is always there, waiting. In 2003 he bought a 1969 tire truck auctioned by the Schell-Vista fire department, and is known as "the Fourth of July fire-truck guy," bringing years of joy to his family riding it in the parade and, some years, cooling down the crowds with its hoses.

Every summer up until the first rains, that Fourth of July fire truck sits outside his home high above the Plaza, ready to roll. This year it did. The first night of the fires, after Mission Highlands, like other many neighborhoods threatened by fire, was evacuated in the middle of the night, Gray was alerted by a neighbor, Sam Badolato, to an arching power line throwing off sparks that he was failing to put out with a garden hose. Grey brought the truck, dousing the embers on the ground, and then climbed the power pole and cut back the tree limbs that were touching the lines, blown by the high winds.

Did that save the neighborhood? The Schell-Vista station, which would in normal circumstances respond to a Mission Highlands emergency, was already out on Napa Road, fighting fires at the Nicholson Ranch and Stornetta Dairy. The Sonoma and Glen Ellen departments and local Cal Fire were working the Glen Ellen and Kenwood fires. In the best of circumstances it takes 20 minutes for the fire trucks to reach Mission Highlands, and these were the worst of times.

“I can tell you we wouldn’t have had the resources to send up there that first night,” Jerry said.

Gray, along with Mission Highlands neighbors Marty Rapozo, Les Peterson, and Bob Julian, stayed in the evacuated area the entire week of the fires. Topper Johnson was there, too, on that first night, when the team together fought a field fire, putting it out with shovels and Gray’s fire truck. They stayed awake for days, headquartering at Rapozo’s home, on the lookout for hot spots and cooperating with the fire departments.

That first night they were on their own, “We were fake firefighters, we were fake PG&E. We were vigilantes,” Gray said. But by Tuesday, when hundreds of fire personnel responded from throughout the state and beyond, there was a fire truck stationed in almost every driveway. “That’s when I became the ‘dozer scout,” Gray said.

Sonoma Fire Chief Gary Johnson asked, “Tim, can you take the dozer guys down there, and I said ‘Sure, I’ll take ‘em.’” And off he went with Jerry to find a route for the Caterpillar D6 bulldozer, driven by an Alameda first responder, to get through, creating a fire break from Norrbom Road across to High Road. Jerry set the backfire below it with a drop torch, near acres of vineyards. The real fire that was burning through Agua Caliente canyon was stopped Wednesday night at 11 p.m.

“The heat from the fire and the column created a pull-back, and all the embers cast back into it,” Jerry said. He explained that there are 1,700 homes between Calle del Monte and Lomita, and it if crossed Highway 12, which was a real possibility, about 2,500.

Asked if it would it have reached Arnold Drive, he answered, “Likely. If it would have burned through downtown Boyes, it could have jumped Arnold Drive and gone right up into Diamond A.”

The next day a bulldozer couldn’t reach a high pile of smoldering manure that fire-hose water couldn’t douse out. There was a threat of spreading fire if embers blew off it. Jerry gave Gray a fire department escort so he could get through roadblocks and reach his Case 580 backhoe parked at a job site in Glen Ellen.

Gray brought the backhoe back to Mission Highlands,where Duane Fowler buried the manure fire and continued to use the backhoe on hot spots. Fowler, who lives in Glen Ellen, has been Gray’s friend since second grade and works for his company.

Gray also had a pool pump, which he used to wet down properties closest to the fire; a chain saw, which he used to clear multiple trees that fell across the roads and driveways; and a wrench to the 40 private hydrants and 500 feet of house on the fire truck. Gray is on the water board of Mission Highlands.

Gray’s wife Andrea, who he’s known since they were students at Sonoma Valley High School, where his father was the principal from 1969 until 1985, was waiting out the fire with family in the Valley. “My wife thought I was an overgrown child who would probably die of exposure that first night. But then she realized that we weren’t going to kill ourselves and we were doing some good.” Their kids, Peter at Purdue University and Alison at the University of Washington, were terrified watching the fire coverage on television. Gray said Peter called to say he wanted to fly home and help, but he told him, “You’re staying right there.”

Gray’s knowledge of the dirt roads that wind through the neighborhood comes from his long residency and having built several homes there, and, he was quick to laughingly admit, “My wife and I used to drink beer up here when were in high school.”

“These are our homes. It never occurred to us that we were going to do anything other than defend our houses until the last possible minute,” he said. “But we played a very small role. Sean Jerry, now he’s the guy.” Jerry grew up in Boyes Springs, and his two daughters were in Valley, knowing their father was out there, fighting the fires.

When high winds kicked up again a week into the fire, Gray and Rapozo stood on the top of the neighborhood’s 30-footwater tower, where they could see for miles, keeping watch. “That was the scariest night,” Gray said. “If it had jumped the fire break then all 66 houses in Mission Highlands would have gone up.”

“We never feared for our lives,” Gray said. The plan was, if necessary, to go across and take refuge in Dom Paino’s vineyards. “Those vineyards were a savior,” Jerry said. “They are a great fire break.”

Tom Tjerandsen, president of the Mission Highlands homeowners association, had high praise for Tim Gray. “He was our single first responder,” he said. “And probably his greatest contribution was his local knowledge of the roads.” He was very happy that Gray had bought the fire truck.

“He was prescient.”

Gray downplays any praise. “We were a motivated team and we played a small part.” He said he feels grateful and very lucky. Nor does he feel any differently about living in an area with a high fire risk. “I love it up here. This hasn’t changed my thinking. We’re not going anywhere”