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.”