Ivan Natividad: Thank your local firefighters (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Ivan Natividad: Thank your local firefighters (VIDEO)

Grass Valley Battalion Chief Josh Sunde (from right) explains his experience showing up to fight the McCourtney Fire along with Capt. Christopher Armstrong, Lt. Robin Serna, and fire intern Trenton Cisneros. For a full video of this exclusive interview, visit www.theunion.com.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com |

A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with a group of people at a restaurant down the hill, and overheard a conversation about the recent fires that burned thousands of acres locally and across our state.

“Those firefighters weren’t trained to handle that,” the man said. “That’s why it became so big.”

The man, let’s call him “Bob,” went into how in news footage he saw, some of the hoses weren’t spraying properly and so forth. To his credit Bob said he had been formerly trained to battle structure fires, however, not as California firefighter.

I have never battled a fire.

But I took offense to the assumption that our firefighters were not training properly, as I have seen with my own eyes the rigorous and disciplined work our local and statewide firefighters put in.

So unfortunately, we got into an argument.

I went into how fighting wind-driven wildland fires is very different from fighting structure fires in a city. Bob went into how the spray on a hose for a fire should be wider and not as narrow. And then I countered with pointing out that making a generalized assumption about all of the firefighters due to one video clip he saw was unfair.

And down the rabbit hole we went.

In the end we agreed to disagree. A week later, coincidentally I was able to sit down with four of our local firefighters who first responded and battled the McCourtney Fire, which burned 85 acres.

I wish “Bob” could have been there.

If he was there, he would have heard how Nevada County Consolidated Batallion Chief Joshua Sunde and his crew, with fires blazing on both sides of the road, drove to the scene of the fire within 45 seconds of the dispatch call to battle the first 10 acres of the blaze and evacuate two homes immediately.

He would have heard how Grass Valley Fire Capt. Christopher Armstrong and his crew, with burning embers gusting through the wind, crossed over power lines to knock down the heat and flames to help evacuate 12 to 14 people before heading back to Polaris Drive to battle the spreading blaze.

He would have heard how Grass Valley Fire intern Trenton Cisneros, hours after having dinner with his parents, sister and fellow firefighters, responded to the biggest blaze he had ever battled in his life, yet forged ahead with his crew to continue to evacuate residents and battle the fire for 48 hours straight.

And had he been there, Bob would have heard how Consolidated Lt. Robin Serna helped distraught residents sift through the remains of their homes — their lives — the morning after the fire.

Bob would have realized that these firefighters are more than just newscast B-roll. They are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, with families that don’t have the privilege of watching the news without thinking about their loved one possibly being hurt or killed.

Had he been there, maybe Bob would have realized everything that real firefighters go through during an incident of that magnitude, and that they deserve more than the unwarranted blame he had previously given them.

Talking to them myself, I realized that there is toll that is taken for being a hero. That it’s not easy.

Whether it is the physical toll on their bodies, the mental and emotional effect of seeing a person or home succumb to flames, or the stress brought upon their own families during a disaster, firefighters have more than smoldering embers to carry on their shoulders.

They have the responsibility of not only protecting the community from incidents, but protecting their fellow firefighters.

“At no point do we want to put someone’s life in jeopardy,” Sunde said. “If something happens to one of these guys, they can’t help anybody else. With this job there is an inherent danger, and we’ve accepted that and we make those choices … But our first priority is life. We can replace things, you can’t replace life.”

Armstrong added “It’s different when you know these people and you’re making decisions and you’re trying to address the safety concerns but you also have all the personal connections and how it impacts their lives,” he said.

“The (McCourtney Fire) was an experience I won’t soon forget. But it was a great group of people. And the community was very supportive. It’s nice to be part of a community that appreciates the public safety that they have.”

Three or four days after they were released from the fire, Armstrong said they were at Staples and a man came up to them, shook their hands and broke down in tears.

“Here was a guy who had lost everything in the fire, and one thing that stuck in my mind was that he said he’s 78 years old and ‘I’m starting my life completely over,'” he said.

His interaction in the store drew the attention of other people, and slowly one by one people began coming up to them thanking them.

“When you look at Nevada County as a whole, it’s a pretty great place,” Armstrong said. “I’m proud because at the end of the day the group of people that we had on made a great stop.”

So the next time you see a firefighter, don’t be a “Bob.” Thank them for the burden that they take on to keep us safe.

To sign up for CodeRED sends alerts to your mobile device via text message if an emergency is happening in your neighborhood, sign up here.

Ivan Natividad is Digital Editor at The Union Newspaper. To contact him call 530-4774242 or email inatividad@theunion.com.

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