What happens when a Bay Area firefighter’s own house goes up in flames?

Firefighter Geoffrey Keller had just finished a 24-hour shift on Aug. 18 cutting down brush around the blazes in the Santa Cruz Mountains when he received a frantic call from his wife.

A wildfire, part of the CZU Complex, was approaching their home on Last Chance Road in Davenport, a small coastal town about 11 miles northwest of Santa Cruz. She had taken their 1-year-old son to his mother’s house in Santa Cruz, but wanted to return home to grab some belongings.


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Keller, who works for Cal Fire, raced back to his home to meet his wife, and despite hosing down their home with water, the fire burned it to the ground.

As wildfires have sprinted across more than 3 million acres in California this year, the unprecedented devastation has upended the lives of firefighters who’ve lost their own homes while trying to save others’. The fires in 2020 have destroyed more than 6,000 buildings in the state, including the homes of at least 12 firefighters, according to Cal Fire Local 2881, the agency’s union. In 2018, 72 Cal Fire and local firefighters lost their homes to the Camp Fire in Butte County, and 10 to the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties. In 2017, the Wine Country fires destroyed 17 homes belonging to firefighters in the North Bay.

While most firefighters on the line are struggling with physical and mental exhaustion beyond what many have ever experienced, an unlucky few are also facing the daunting task of figuring out where to stay in the short-term and how to rebuild.

The fire that tore through Keller’s neighborhood destroyed most of the homes on the 6-mile stretch of Last Chance Road. The two-story cabin that Keller built when he married in 2017, including the small room with mountains painted on the wall that he had added for his son, was gutted.

The only remnant of the home he built was an inscription combining his last name and his wife’s maiden name that Keller engraved into the foundation: McKeller, Est. 2017.

“It’s amazing how it just takes time for all this stuff to set in,” said Keller. He is now patrolling his neighborhood for remaining spot fires. “You’re just handling it as it comes. The crazy part (is), it’s just the beginning of fire season.”

Firefighters like Keller have access to support that the average person might not have. Cal Fire workers have organized a support system that spans ranks. Captains, retired chiefs and firefighters that have “gone through the problems we are going to experience” check in with firefighters on the job and offer emotional assistance, Keller said.

When he lost his home, his captain put him in touch with another captain who lost his home in the Camp Fire. He received advice on hiring an accountant to help with all the paperwork as well as other issues. The wives of other firefighters have checked in with his wife regularly, and his colleagues have donated clothes and baby clothes. Keller doesn’t have home insurance to help cover the cost of rebuilding.

The state also gives firefighters five days of paid leave if they’re forced to evacuate or lose their home to a wildfire, and they have access to free counseling. The Cal Fire Benevolent Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the state’s firefighters, provides financial assistance. Cal Fire Local 2881 also assists firefighters in their search for housing.

Keller wasn’t the only firefighter whose home was decimated by the CZU Complex, which as of Tuesday had destroyed more than 1,490 structures and burned more than 86,000 acres, though it seems to be under control with 91% containment.

Darrell Sales and his partner, Chelsea Burman, lost their Bonny Doon home to the CZU Complex. Early on Aug. 16, the loud cracks of lightning that ignited the fires woke Sales and Burman.

The couple made tea and took a seat on a futon on the back deck, which has a view of Mt. Hamilton and the Lick Observatory.

“I was thinking, man Mother Nature is so beautiful,” said Sales, a firefighter with the San Jose Fire Department.

Before long, the couple noticed small plumes of smoke rising among the mountains. But because of the rain, Sales thought it was no big deal; the precipitation would wash away any spot fires.

Two days after the first lightning strikes, Bonny Doon, unlike Last Chance Road, received an evacuation order.

A day after the evacuation order, a firefighter from Sales’ department called him and said, “I’m so sorry, we are on your street now and we can’t make it to your house because everything is on fire.”

His home was leveled.

“I keep telling myself it’s just four walls and paint,” Sales said.

Sales never thought he’d be a homeowner in California due to the exorbitant costs. For a while, he lived in the back of his 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon, fighting fires throughout the state. But then his fire captain at the time showed him a home in Bonny Doon.

“From the first moment I set foot in that area, I fell in love with the place.” Sales said.

So he sold his vehicle and filled the home with furniture and items donated by friends and family, like the shaving brush his grandfather used during the Korean War.

“The crappiest part of this whole experience is the grieving process happens one day at a time,” Sales said. “Every day you remember something new that you forgot. This is a very huge lesson in humility. Stuff isn’t really important, it is all the people that were attached to those things that are important. You still have that memory.”

Other firefighters who’ve seen their homes leveled say the loss is immeasurable. Andy Pestana, a South San Francisco Fire Department firefighter, and his wife lost 27 of their 65 goats. His Vacaville farm is home to Nigerian Dwarf goats, prize-winning, two-time champions of the American Dairy Goat Association national show. His barn, home and trailer burned down in the LNU Complex fires. Pestana is working with his insurance company to account for his losses.

The LNU Complex has gutted more than 1,491 structures and killed five people across Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. It’s burned more than 363,200 acres and as of Tuesday was 97% contained.

“This is what climate change is going to cause,” he said. “I don’t want to say this is the new normal, but it’s the new normal. We just got caught.”

Pestana and his wife, Sarah Hawkins, never received an evacuation order, but left their home when a wall of fire encroached on their yard. Pestana said he had to jump into the passenger seat of his vehicle as the driver’s side was blocked by flames.

His wife ran back into the house and grabbed their 12-year-old border collie before jumping into a separate vehicle. The couple escaped to a friend’s house about 6 miles away as the fire closed in on their property.

Pestana is experiencing the kind of emotional turmoil that he often sees in people who’ve lost nearly everything in a fire. When the Wine Country fires happened in 2017, Pestana took three truckloads of supplies to people who had lost their homes.

“To be on the other side of that donation table, I felt ashamed to have to take socks or a toothbrush because I’m supposed to be the one helping, not the one needing help,” he said tearfully. “I feel guilty that I couldn’t do more or that I didn’t do more.”

Pestana, Sales and Keller said the question isn’t a matter of whether they will rebuild; they will. The question remains when they can start.

For Keller, staying in Last Chance is important to his family.

“My wife’s family had been out there for 40 years before we lived there,” Keller said. “We all have a lot of responsibility in the rebuilding of our community. It is important for us to go back and support our community.”

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SarRavani

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