Hard Day’s Night for Gilroy Firefighters

Gilroy firefighters worked for 96 hours straight to get a handle on the fire over Eagle Ridge

It was already a long week. Working a 96-hour shift as a firefighter in extreme heat, away from home, away from family, can be draining. But when the bell rings, tired or not, members of the Gilroy Fire Department are on the job.
At 7 p.m. on Sunday nine Gilroy firefighters were first on the scene of a 50-acre fire above Eagle Ridge. Reinforcements had not yet arrived and it was too dark for air support. That didn’t matter, there was a job to be done.
By Wednesday, the blaze was 65 percent contained and no homes or lives were lost.
“It sounded like a plane was coming down for a landing,” said Kevin Bebee, 43, of the sounds the huge flames were making. “It was like a jet engine.”
There are dangers, other than the fire itself. The terrain was steep and trees weakened by the fire.
“On the fire line you could see boulders that would get exposed by the fire and there’s potential for those to shift,” said Casey Main,40, a firefighter paramedic. “There are so many different variables that you need to look out for. You always need to watch out where you’re going.”
Firefighters are trained to expect the unexpected and they rely on extensive training to make it through dangerous situations. But every emergency is different.
“I was basically the first one there on the scene,” Main said. “As soon as we pulled out of Las Animas Station we could see that it was a significant column of smoke. Based on that we could tell it wouldn’t be the typical fire. We train and talk about it, but this is the first time in 11 years that I’ve seen something that big here in the city limits.”
Added Bebee: “We knew it was going to be big. We knew it was going to take a long time and we were going to be working hard.”
Upon arrival at the heel of the fire, a cul-de-sac on Ballybunion Court, the firefighters were relieved to see that the fire which started in the dry, grassy hills was moving upward, away from nearby homes. They moved in for the attack, trying to halt the fire in its track as it blazed uphill.
“There was not life safety that we could initially see, so it was about preserving property and the environment,” Main said. “We worked to build a barrier around the fire the best we could and we set up a progressive hose lay. I stretched 600 feet of hose line from my attack engine just to get to the heel of the fire.”
Bebee drew a diagram of the area, detailing the left and right flanks of the hill as he detailed the strategy behind fighting the fire.
“We started going up the hill which was heavy, dense brush, grass and trees,” he said. “Everybody had hose packs of about 200 feet.”
Each firefighter carries about 50 to 70 pounds of gear, which includes tools, hose couplings and drinking water.
“Once you get up the hill, you don’t want to come down for a drink of water,” Greg Lopez, Fire Captain said. “You need to be self-sufficient. They spent the night up there.”
It was dark and the rugged, steep terrain posed several dangers. Fighting uphill, they thrashed through the brush, avoiding falling, burning trees and the fire itself. One Gilroy firefighter fell 40 feet down the hillside, but was back at work with a day.
“We plan for that, train for that, but we always expect the unexpected,” Lopez said. “That’s what makes it challenging, but it’s also what makes it rewarding.”
“We weren’t going to get aircraft, so we knew we were going to have to hump up that hill and be in it for the long haul.” Bebee said. “With the thick brush, we were literally pulling trees apart so we could get hose through.”
Said Main: “When I first got there I thought we could catch the fire. But the wind picked up and the fire took off. That was a very steep flank. You got to do what you got to do to make steady progress. That’s the way it was throughout the night.”
Help started to arrive in the wee hours. Inmate crews, from the California Department of Corrections, were there with chainsaws scraping six-foot-wide paths, helping firefighters move and clearing the dry brush and grass that fuels the fire.
“It got a little scary there for a minute when the wind shifted,” Main said. “It started to push back at us, so we thought about escape routes and safety zones.”
It was an intense situation.
“A tree fell right in front of me and yeah, I was scared,” Main said. “Those are scary things, but that’s the reality of what we do.”
As the night wore on, other fire departments from around the area came to help, including epartments from Santa Cruz, Santa Clara. Los Gatos and CalFire.
“It’s like a chess match, you make a move here and something else needs to happen there,” Lopez said. “The key to any of these situations is to use our training. Otherwise, firefighters could get lost.”
As the night drew to a close and near dawn, CalFire was able to deploy air tankers.
“We were happy to see them but we also must be mindful of our safety,” Main said. “If we end up being right under the drop, we need to take evasive action and keep on going. Things happen, but typically we’re happy to see air resources because we know that’s what can really make significant progress on these fires.”
The GFD has a lot of fans now on Ballybunion Court. As the fire raged, residents stayed up late to bake cookies and get water to firefighters as they went back and forth from the fire.
“I panicked and my daughter was crying when she saw the flames,” said Nepar Penn, a resident on Ballybunion Court. “Within minutes the fire trucks came. Everything happened so fast. We’ve never seen anything like this happen; it was like a movie. I saw one fireman load up with six or seven rolls of hose. It was amazing.”
So, after spending all night on a fire line, it’s time for a rest. Right? Not for them. As soon as they got a chance to sit down and reflect, the bell rang and Main, Bebee and Lopez leapt into action. In less than a minute, they were in the fire engine off to another emergency.