Fifty-foot flames flaring down Agua Caliente canyon in the earliest hours of Oct. 9 were about to devour the Mission Highlands neighborhood and race into the backyards of Boyes Hot Springs. That’s when Glen Ellen Cal Fire Capt. Sean Jerry studied the situation from a crest on High Road and said, “OK, this is what we’re going to do.”
What followed involved a bulldozer driving up asphalt roads and bursting into the canyon to dig a firebreak while Jerry and other firefighters set a back burn below it that kept the fire within a few feet of reaching 66 Mission Highlands homes and 15 minutes away from the thickly populated Springs area with 2,500 homes.
“It would have been there –– 100 percent,” he said. But they stopped it.
In Mission Highlands Jerry was guided through the smoky night by longtime neighborhood resident Tim Gray, and together they found a path for the dozer to get through on little-known back roads. From a hillside post Gray watched the entire firefighting plan take place. “Sean Jerry, now he’s the guy,” Gray said in praise of the captain who saved his home and many others.
Jerry, 40, grew up in Boyes Hot Springs, and knew since he was a young boy that he wanted to be a firefighter. He joined the Valley of the Moon Explorer Post when he was 15, and became a volunteer there when he graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 1996. His career with Cal Fire began as a seasonal worker in 1999, becoming year round in 2009. After extensive experience including helicopter firefighting, arson investigation and fire truck engineer, he became the Glen Ellen captain in 2015.
“When fire is threatening your hometown it’s a different experience,” Jerry said. On the first night of the fires he was off duty and he was awakened by a call asking him to come in. His firehouse on Highway 12 was empty when he arrived and he jumped in the last remaining pickup and starting driving through Glen Ellen, reporting conditions into the command post and then guiding firetrucks and bulldozers from out of the area to spots where they could dig breaks and hold the fire line. It was that night Jerry saw the home where he spent his early boyhood burned to the ground.
Like for many firefighters, it was the beginning of six days when he would sleep only 10 hours total. “We were beyond exhausted,” he said. His daughters, Hailey, 15, and Lia, 11, anxiously followed the fires from their home in Sonoma, knowing their Dad was out there. “They wrote me letters saying thank you,” Jerry said softy. Lia, who wants to be a firefighter, included in hers, “I wish I was in the pickup with you.”
Jerry is a big man of few words, who goes on and on about the fires, saying almost nothing about himself. It’s not his way. He realizes this tale is one of many heroic experiences of first responders during this epic fire.
Jerry’s Battalion Chief Kirk Van Wormer also knows of many heroes, but his praise for Jerry comes easily. “Sean just makes things happen. He knows the Valley, he has a world of knowledge and he went out there and made it happen with very limited resources.” He said the fire fighting that saved Mission Highlands and probably Boyes Hot Springs was “a very aggressive plan.”
“Sean very well knew the ramifications of not being able to hold that fire. He brought his heart and his intense desire to be sure his community wasn’t affected. And he had people out there who rallied with him,” Van Wormer said. “It’s not a surprise to me what he did. That’s just typical Sean. He’s a wonderful human being.”
All of the land around the Glen Ellen Cal Fire Station is burned, but firefighters saved the firehouse. Weeks later it still reeks of smoke, and homemade chocolate chip cookies sit on the counter from thankful neighbors. “To drive through here and know this won’t be the same again for 100 years,” he said, shaking his head sorrowfully, acknowledging the charred trees and mountainsides.
Jerry is quiet. Enough time has passed that the reality of what happened –– and what could have happened –– is settling in. He explains the paths of the fires, how they were fought using satellite maps on his computer screen. He’s more comfortable with that than with personal conversation.
When people say thank you, he responds humbly and politely, “You’re welcome.”