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Inside an Inferno: AFSCME Members Endure California Wildfires

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By Pete Levine Explore the Issues
911 dispatcher Evonne Stevens. Photo provided by member.
911 dispatcher Evonne Stevens. Photo provided by member.

For Evonne Stevens, a 14-year veteran 911 dispatcher, the night of one of California’s deadliest wildfires began innocuously enough. A co-worker’s kid was interviewing her for a school report. He wanted to know what a typical workday looked like.

“It’s kind of ironic now,” said Stevens, a member of United EMS Workers (AFSCME Local 4911).  “I said that on a typical night we might get a car accident, maybe an elderly person falling down.”

That was around 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 8. Her shift – and what would prove to be the most terrifying night of her life – was just getting started. Some rescue personnel worked 25 days straight, Stevens said.

That evening’s call volume started out pretty normally, recalls Stevens, who works at Santa Rosa-based Redwood Empire Dispatch and Communications Authority (REDCOM). REDCOM provides secondary 911 services for Sonoma County, part of Northern California’s wine region.  

 “We heard of a little firebug in Santa Rosa county,” said Stevens. But she and her coworkers didn’t think much of it at the time. “But then we started hearing about a few structure fires. Then a few more fires started cropping up in different places. By 9:15,” said Stevens, “things were getting crazy. The fire was sweeping all over the place.”

From about 10 p.m. on, the calls – some 300-400 an hour – didn’t stop.

What would come to be known as the Tubbs Fire, would eventually kill 43 people, cause $1 billion in damage and destroy 8,800 homes and structures. Over the next many days, it spread with shocking speed and forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. A big culprit: winds that gusted over 50 miles an hour. In no time, said Stevens, all regular fire resources – dispatchers, fire engines and firefighters – were overcome.

Paramedic Nathan DuVardo. Photo credit: James DuVardo
Paramedic Nathan DuVardo. Photo credit: James DuVardo

On the Ground

That night, as Stevens and her team tried to route ambulances through thickening smoke and downed power lines, Nathan DuVardo, a 35-year-old paramedic who also belongs to Local 4911, witnessed the fires’ progression on the ground.

The same pattern had unfolded: confusing, early radio chatter about disparate, smaller fires, followed by larger structure fires, and then the full onslaught of frenzied requests for help.

The first call that DuVardo’s team took was a request to assist two burn victims. The location he needed to get to was on a rural road that DuVardo characterized as “dangerous on a good day.” By the time his team arrived, the sheriff’s department had closed the road. The conditions had grown too treacherous.

“They said they couldn’t guarantee our safety if we proceeded,” DuVardo recalled soberly.

It was the first of several agonizing decisions he would have to make that night. However, knowing that another crew could rescue the victims through a safer route, DuVardo requested additional support, speeding away to their next call.

Without a Playbook

His next call led his team to a three-story senior residential facility, which sat directly in the fire’s path.

“Typically, in those cases we’re there to assist the fire department,” explained DuVardo.

Firefighters, who have extensive training in evacuation procedures, bring people to the ambulances, where care can be administered. But on the night of October 8, DuVardo and his team were working without a playbook: No fire engines were available. With only four ambulances on the scene, there was not nearly enough capacity to transport the more than 150 residents of the home to safety.

DuVardo, who’s been on the job for 11 years, came up with a back-up plan.

“I told my supervisor, ‘I need you to send me two city buses,’” DuVardo recalls.

By that point, he could see smoke and the glow of flame, but not the flames themselves. Still, the winds were sweeping ash and smoke toward them and he knew time was short.

The response from his supervisor was haunting: ‘“I’ll see what I can do,’” DuVardo remembers him saying. “’But you need to load as many people as you can until you see flames.” Once the fire drew too close, DuVardo said, he would have no choice but to save whomever he could and leave the rest behind.

Training Kicks In

“As a paramedic, you’re trained to ‘start where you stand’,” said DuVardo. And that’s just what DuVardo and his impromptu evacuation team did.

They spread out, moving from door to door, floor to floor, clearing rooms and shepherding the residents into the hallways. Some of them were nearly 100 years old and completely dependent on staff.

By that time, the doors to the facility were swinging open with the force of the wind, and the smoke was so heavy that it set off the building’s fire alarms.

“You hear the fire alarm going and everything in your body is telling you to get out,” said DuVardo. Nevertheless, his team continued clearing residents from their rooms, shuffling them outside and filling their ambulances to capacity.

“That took almost an hour. By then, we could feel the heat from the fire, but I knew that I still had 40-50 people to go. I was just hoping the bus would show up,” DuVardo said.

He caught a lucky break. Just as he sent the packed ambulances off, he saw two headlights flash over the road. It was the bus he’d requested. They would be able to save the remaining residents.

The bus wove through dense traffic to a community center which had just been set up as a shelter. There, other newly-arrived evacuees helped unload the elderly residents, carrying them inside.

“That was just the beginning of the night,” said DuVardo with a chuckle.

He and his team set out once again, embarking on the beginning of a non-stop, 85-hour ordeal that would demand every ounce of training, ingenuity and compassion he had.

An Outpouring of Support

In the following days, as fears of flare-ups subsided, the gratitude and support shown by the regions residents only grew stronger.

“People were amazing,” said DuVardo. “It was just incredible.” One night, someone knocked on his headquarters’ door. It was the owner of a nearby Mexican restaurant, who’d brought 300 burritos for his team. A few evenings later, as DuVardo and his team sat in their ambulance around 3 a.m., a man pulled beside them.

“He opened up his trunk and inside we could see all these boxes of pastries and coffee,” recalls DuVardo. “He was just going around to people to thank them. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Evonne Stevens echoed the same level of support. Whether it was co-workers or the community at large, everyone pulled together to support the people whose jobs are to get their communities through extraordinary crises.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Common Refrain

When asked to explain what drives AFSCME members like Stevens and DuVardo, Jason Brollini, president and executive director of United EMS Workers (AFSCME Local 4911), said, “I don’t have words to express these folks’ dedication and love for their communities. They always go above and beyond. They don’t stop.”

As Stevens put it: “Walking away wasn’t an option. There’s a sense of responsibility to my co-workers, my community, my job.”

Nathan DuVardo summed it up this way: “People in the EMS community aren’t the types to sit on the curb when something like this happens.”

And while both Stevens and DuVardo’s own homes and families remained safe throughout the fires, other AFSCME members who served their communities during the California wildfires weren’t as lucky. More than a dozen saw their homes destroyed or damaged by the fires.