California fires: Civilians, construction crews pitch in to save homes

California fires: Civilians, construction crews pitch in to save homes

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From the air, you can see parts of Sonoma County, California have been blackened by the wildfires there. Much of the state’s famed wine country share the same fate.
USA TODAY

A resident of Capell Valley, Calif., runs a bulldozer in the hills above the valley floor.(Photo: Sam Gross, Reno Gazette-Journal)

NAPA, Calif. — Late Tuesday night, as the raging Atlas Fire bore down on the small Capell Valley community of a few dozen homes in the hills above the city of Napa, Cathy Pridmore’s goats began giving birth.

It wasn’t a convenient time, she said.

Her family — multiple generations of Pridmores ranging from nieces and nephews to brothers, cousins and grandparents — were in the hills above her home fighting a fire that was threatening the land their family has called home since 1927.

The Pridmores, who make up a substantial amount of the households in the valley, were embattled with the blaze alongside a ragtag crew of neighbors and friends who had stayed behind to save the valley that they call home.

Tuesday night would prove to be their toughest fight.

More: One week later, firefighters gain ground on historic California fires

More: California wildfires: Crews search for traces of victims as fires rage on

More: Drone footage shows charred remains of California wine country

Swirling gusts of wind had whipped hundred-foot flames into a semi-circle around the valley. The Pridmores and their neighbors used bulldozers and water tenders from Gil Pridmore’s construction company, Pridmore Brothers Construction, to cut fire lines and douse homes in water.

And as the fire encircled the valley and the residents of Capell Valley cut fire line after fire line, Cathy helped bring 21 baby goats into a world that was, at the time, a raging inferno.

Gil Pridmore gives a tour of the firelines dug in the hills above Capell Valley in northern California. (Photo: Sam Gross, Reno Gazette-Journal)

Cathy Pridmore said she’s going to name some of the feistier baby goats fire, smoke and ember.

The Pridmores and their neighbors were successful in beating back the flames, not just on Tuesday night but for days after. Their efforts, alongside teams of firefighters, saved all but one home in the valley.

The story of the Capell Valley community is one that was repeated in neighborhoods and valleys across Northern California’s wine country this week, as dry conditions and high winds fueled multiple fires in Sonoma, Napa, Yuba and Mendocino counties.

It was not only firefighters who stood in the path of the blazes, but civilians too. Contractors, skilled construction workers and even former wildland firefighters came out of the woodwork to run bulldozers and drive multi-thousand gallon water tenders on twisty and damaged back roads.

They picked up what tools and equipment they could and tried to save their neighborhoods.

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Rising winds fanned the California wildfires again Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee their homes in the state’s fabled wine country and testing the efforts of crews who have spent days trying to corral the flames behind firebreaks. (Oct. 14)
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This drone video shows how wildfires have completely decimated parts of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California.
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Two men who hiked for miles through Northern California wildfire territory in Santa Rosa expecting a grim discovery were met with a joyful one instead. (Oct. 14)
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California crews continued to work various wildfires with a steady stream of helicopters on Sunday, hoping to come one step closer to containment of one of the most destructive group of wildfires in state history. (Oct. 15)
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Many residents in Napa, California got the green light to return home on Sunday following a week of devastating wildfires – the worst in the state’s history – only to find rubble. (Oct. 16)
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From the air, you can see parts of Sonoma County, California have been blackened by the wildfires there. Much of the state’s famed wine country share the same fate.
USA TODAY

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Firefighters by the thousands are converging on Northern California, using all their tools to keep wildfire hotspots in check, as the threat of higher winds and more fire danger looms into the weekend. (Oct. 13)
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Newly released body camera footage shows a sheriff’s deputy braving flames to rescue a disabled woman and get people to flee from a lethal wildfire that was about to devour a Northern California community. (Oct. 13)
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Search and rescue personnel were on site Friday at a mobile home park in Northern California, with the grim task of searching for residents who didn’t make it out. Meanwhile, crews reported their first progress toward containing the blazes. (Oct. 13)
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California inmates fight fires for a buck an hour and love it
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Melted cars. Mangled homes. Shocking drone footage shows communities of ashes created by California wildfires.
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Fire officials say thousands of firefighters have poured into California in the last 24 hours and that more than 9,000 are now fighting several major blazes. (Oct. 13)
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Firefighters gained some ground on a blaze burning in the heart of California’s wine country but face another tough day ahead with low humidity and high winds expected to return. (Oct. 13)
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A couple survived the deadly California wildfire by spending six hours submerged in their neighbor’s pool.
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In this drone video, you can see footage of the fire destruction of Santa Rosa in Northern California. (Oct. 12, 2017)
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Some of the California’s most historic tourist sites, including Sonoma city and Calistoga in Napa Valley, were ghost towns on Thursday as firefighters tried to stop the advancing infernos that are becoming the deadliest in the state’s history. (Oct. 12)
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Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano says recovery teams, some with cadaver dogs, will start searching for bodies in some areas devastated by wildfires raging in California wine country. (Oct. 12)
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Firefighters were on the front lines Thursday in Sonoma, California fighting to snuff out wildfire hot spots, as evacuating residents were leaving with the belongings they could carry and haul away, with fire danger still threatening the area. (Oct. 12)
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Drone images from fire-ravaged California
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Jessica Tunis’ desperate search for her 69-year-old mother who had been missing since a massive wildfire burned through her mobile home park in California ended in heartache Wednesday. (Oct. 11)
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Wildfires that raged across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark what were once homes. (Oct. 11)
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California Gov. Jerry Brown warns that catastrophic wildfires will keep ripping through the state as the climate warms. (Oct. 11)
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Drone video taken over part of Santa Rosa, California Tuesday shows residential areas scorched by the inferno that swept through the area late Sunday into Monday. Officials say wildfires destroyed as many as 2,000 homes and businesses. (Oct. 10)
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A family member says an elderly couple that died in a Northern California fire was together since grade school. Mike Rippey said Tuesday his 100-year-old father and 98-year-old mother celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary last year. (Oct. 10)
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President Donald Trump addressed the devastating California wildfires saying ‘we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy.’ He made the comments while welcoming the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House. (Oct. 10)
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A Southern California wildfire remains active and residents are being told the evacuations won’t be lifted soon. (Oct. 10)
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Residents of Kenwood, California are among those forced to flee for their lives ahead of fast moving wildfires Sunday night in Northern California. Some were returning Tuesday to inspect what was left of their homes. (Oct. 10)
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The flames that raced across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house was gone, with only charred debris to mark sites that were once family homes. (Oct. 10)
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Napa residents that came back to find their homes saved, use fire from a swimming pool to put out any spot fires, so another raging wildfire doesn’t engulf them. (Oct. 10)
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Visitors at California’s Disneyland are sharing shocking photos of the theme park under an ominous orange sky as deadly wildfires rage across the state.
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As of Monday morning, two wildfires had burned more than 50,000 acres in Napa County.
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Two adjacent hotels burned in Santa Rosa, California as wildfires swept through the community. (Oct. 10)
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As fast-moving wildfires spark evacuations and devastate communities, California residents shared these first-hand videos.
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California’s fire chief says at least 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed in wildfires ripping through Northern California. (Oct. 9)
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Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California early Monday, sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes and businesses burned in wine country. (Oct. 9)
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Firefighters are battling several wind-whipped fires that forced evacuations of rural neighborhoods in Northern California. (Oct. 9)
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By the end of the week, thousands of firefighters from across the nation had converged on the area to fight the flames. But when fires roared across suburban and rural portions of wine country late Sunday night, local firefighting resources were quickly spread thin.

More: ‘Nobody trains for this’: Crews sift California wildfire ruins for traces of victims

More: Why wildfires are destroying so many homes in California

That first night, it quickly became apparent to the residents of Capell Valley that they were going to be on their own. When evacuation orders were given for the area, many residents chose to leave, but the Pridmores and many of their neighbors chose to stay.

They knew if they left, there would be little standing between their homes and the raging Atlas Fire.

“Honestly, at that point I think we had more resources available [in the area] to fight fire than Cal Fire did.”

“Honestly, at that point I think we had more resources available [in the area] to fight fire than Cal Fire did,” said Cameron Pridmore, Cathy’s son who’s a civil engineer.

Now thousands of firefighting resources have been diverted into Northern California, but the scope of the blazes burning in the state has been overwhelming.

The Pridmores and their neighbors weren’t on their own for long. A handful of firefighting crews arrived in the valley shortly after Sunday. Air support in the form of tanker planes and helicopters doused the rim of the valley when winds were calm enough for them to fly.

When those crews arrived, the people of Capell Valley fed them and supplied fuel for their trucks.

While the Pridmores and their neighbors fought to save their homes, entire neighborhoods and swaths of rural area were being charred and reduced to rubble. At least 40 people have died in the flames and officials estimate that roughly 5,700 structures have burned so far.

Bob and Diane Rosecranz at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds on Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo: Sam Gross, Reno Gazette-Journal)

Diane and Bob Rosecranz, who live in the Capell Valley, were celebrating their anniversary in Oregon when the Atlas fire sparked. They rushed down the coast as quickly as they could, but the drive took hours longer due to roadblocks from other fires further north in California.

It wasn’t after they arrived home on Monday that the evacuation order was given. They’ve been holed up in a hotel in Napa since, getting updates from their neighbors fighting the fire back home.

A week later, their home is still standing. They credit the work of their neighbors for that.

“We’re not at all surprised that these people did what they did,” Diane Rosecranz said. “Not at all.”

Days after the fires started, word of the past week’s destruction is slowly reaching the Capell Valley. Power went out shortly after the fires started, taking cell service with it.

“Until Tuesday we didn’t really have communication with anyone,” Cameron Pridmore said. “It was mayhem when the fires first started coming over.”

The Pridmores and their neighbors didn’t have radios, a normally crucial tool. So Cameron Pridmore and his cousins used dirt bikes to relay messages between different groups and keep tabs on the fire’s movements.

This wasn’t the first time Gil Pridmore had fought a fire in those hills. He spent years as the boss of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection bulldozer crew and fought the 1981 Atlas Peak Fire.

He used this experience to help lead a team of 30 people to cut multiple layers of firelines on the rim of the valley.

“The worst part was waiting, because you’d see it coming. Then after a while you just wanted it to be over, one way or the other.”

When flames would breach their lines and encroach on houses, the goal was to get the house “in the black,” or completely surrounded by burned areas so there was no fuel left to catch fire.

“The worst part was waiting, because you’d see it coming,” Cameron Pridmore said. “Then after a while you just wanted it to be over, one way or the other.”

“We either win and we save the house or we lose and the house is gone. Either way, it’s over.”

Saturday night was the first time the Capell Valley took a breath since the Atlas Fire first barreled across the mountainsides nearly a week before. Plumes from the Atlas fire could be seen in the distance, but fire activity in the valley was low.

Many homes in the valley were being partially powered by generators, but freezers storing reserves of meat had begun to thaw and risked going bad.

So residents took the meat to a barren field they’d chosen as their safety spot and communal meeting place and had a cookout.

“People cried and people hugged; we even had a glass of wine,” Cathy Pridmore said.

Follow Sam Gross on Twitter: @samzgross

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