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Police body-camera footage from Sonoma County wildfires shows harrowing escapes

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'You just gotta get out of here:' Read the Mercury News story here

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The night’s sky glows an ominous orange and burning embers blow past emergency responders in a jarring, newly released body-camera video, exhibiting Santa Rosa police officers’ desperate attempts to evacuate neighborhoods during October’s historic firestorm.

The raw, shaky footage, obtained by The Mercury News, captured the unedited viewpoints of officers in those first frightful hours. During eight hours of tape, officers in many cases can be seen and heard just as stunned as the residents they’re rescuing, all while imploring them to leave their homes behind and escape by any means necessary.

“It’s just so terrifying,” cries out a senior citizen who quickly jumps into Officer Dave Pedersen’s police cruiser. “Tell me it’s just this neighborhood.”

“No, it’s not,” Pedersen solemnly responds. “It’s the whole hill.”

(All videos courtesy of Bay Area News Group)

Santa Rosa police policy requires only that officers activate their body cameras while conducting investigations, such as arrests and crime victim interviews, Capt. Ray Navarro said Sunday. The wildfire evacuation did not necessitate turning the cameras on, but he said several officers chose to document the moment-to-moment chaos, which will aid in reviewing their on-the-ground actions to save lives.

Fueled by high winds of up to 70 mph that triggered red flag warnings, flames raced 12 miles — from Calistoga to Santa Rosa — in about four hours. The Tubbs fire jumped Highway 101 and landed in the neighborhood of thousands of unaware Coffey Park residents.

The cumulative firestorm would ultimately destroy nearly 5,300 Sonoma County homes and take the lives of 44 people in Northern California. At least five of the victims failed to get past their garage doors after the power went out.

In the early morning hours on Oct. 9, Pedersen came to realize a number of Fountaingrove residents either didn’t know they could manually open their garages, or were too feeble from age to lift them. The footage depicts the officer spending critical moments unlatching garage doors in a condominium complex and urging people to get into their cars and flee.

“There you go, ma’am,” Pedersen tells a woman who was stranded. “You are outta here. You need to get down the hill, ma’am.”

Body camera footage also shows officers spending considerable time saving residents at three assisted and memory care facilities in Fountaingrove — one of which, Villa Capri, eventually burned to the ground. A few officers vent their frustrations over not seeing any facility staff around to help wake residents, and having to repeatedly break down doors with crowbars and battering rams to extricate unsuspecting tenants still fast asleep.

At least 17 residents and family members are suing the facility’s owner and manager, Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group. The state also is investigating Villa Capri’s evacuation.

However, company officials deny any wrongdoing, and have said public safety agencies prevented staff from returning up the hill to evacuate remaining residents.

In the face of sheer panic, one clip presents Officer Orlando Macias trying to bring a sense of levity to an otherwise terror-filled atmosphere for one senior in a wheelchair as she waited for evacuee buses, which finally arrived just before dawn.

'You just gotta get out of here:' Read the Mercury News story here

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“If it helps ya, grab onto my shoulders, like we’re dancing, OK?” Macias tells the woman as they make jokes about his weight. “They could’ve got a thinner guy to help navigate this, but they got me.”

“I wasn’t dressed for this occasion,” the woman, in only her nightgown, replies as the officers lifts her up the steps of the bus.

Although the footage is just coming to light more than seven months after the devastating fires, and as the community continues to recover, it reconfirms for members of the Santa Rosa Police Department the duty and self-sacrifice their colleagues displayed Oct. 8 and 9.

“That video recording captures a fraction of the heroism that was shown that night, and the courage of law enforcement throughout the county,” Navarro said. “There was a lot of bravery going on.”

This article includes information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.