Deputy lauded for keeping calm, protecting dozens in wildfires
The LEO had no firefighters to help him, no way to fight the flames except for a small fire extinguisher he kept in his car
San Francisco Chronicle
They didn’t know his name. They only knew he seemed to have figured out how they could survive.
As the Tubbs Fire cut a wide path through northern Santa Rosa early Oct. 9, 35 people huddled in their cars in a parking lot in the hills above town. The oldest was 91, the youngest 4 months. They had tried to drive to safety, but there was no way. Now the fire was on both sides, and they were terrified.
They had been led to the parking lot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who didn’t dare let on how scared he was.
Deputy Mark Aldridge’s shift started at 7 o’clock the previous evening. “A pretty normal night,” he said.
The first call came at 10 p.m. to evacuate houses at Mark West Springs and Porter Creek roads. There had been grass fires everywhere, so “it was kind of nonchalant at the beginning,” he said. “Kind of no big deal.”
But the deep red glow toward the east was unnerving. Aldridge joined other deputies banging on doors on the 3600 block of Porter Creek and yelling, “Sheriff’s office!”
He would wait, but not long before moving onto the next house.
“People would say, ‘How much time do I have?’ And you say, ‘None. You need to leave now.’”
He could see flames. They were as high as a 10-story building, and the winds pushing them toward him were blowing at 50 mph.
A driver headed down the hill pointed to a house just above Mark West Lodge, an event center surrounded by wooded hills. There was an older couple in the house and they weren’t leaving, the driver told Aldridge.
The deputy went up to the house and found the couple trying to catch and load their seven cats into their cars. They had found five.
“I told them to (leave) the cats,” Aldridge said, although his choice of words was more urgent and less polite.
They followed him out in two cars and another car pulled in behind him. But down the road, “it was just a wall of flames,” Aldridge said.
He turned the caravan around. His boss, Sgt. Brandon Cutting, was ahead of him, his body camera capturing the chaos of falling trees and wires, the embers, flames. On the video, he yells into his radio, “No pass! Do not pass!”
He was talking to Aldridge. The deputy steered his evacuees back to the Mark West Lodge parking lot, which holds about 30 cars. It was 12:30 a.m.
More people started pulling into the lot, their escape routes blocked. Aldridge had no firefighters to help him, no way to fight the flames except for a small fire extinguisher he kept in his car.
He took people’s names, cracked jokes, kept people calm, said Mike Mendenhall, 56, one of those who had taken refuge in the parking lot.
“You could tell he was struggling a little,” Mendenhall said. “But he pulled it off.”
Out of the earshot of children, he told their parents, “Look, if this overruns us, you stay in your car. It’s going to burn right over us and you might need a new paint job.”
He told them to put clothing over the inside of the windows to reflect the heat.
He didn’t tell them he was scared, too.
“We could hear the trees exploding as it kept getting closer,” said Jennifer Arrington, 46, who was with her 12-year-old son, Tommy, and their two large dogs. “We could hear it marching, things exploding, getting closer. The glow got brighter. We could see the heat wave.”
Aldridge kept everyone calm. They talked about their families, Arrington said, and at one point he stopped by to give her son a fruit snack that his own son had left behind in his car.
“Oh, God, now your mom is going to be mad at me because she has to go buy them for you,” he told her son.
“It was community banter,” Aldridge said. “It was parents. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m the sheriff.’”
But the deputy was keeping a sharp eye on the fire. He didn’t remember until later that he had proposed to his wife in the lodge, when it was still a restaurant. And he didn’t remember that his father, a volunteer firefighter, defended the lodge when the last fire roared through the area in 1964.
Instead, he was focused on his radio, the scanner traffic tracking evacuations in Fountaingrove, the fire jumping the freeway and pushing through Coffey Park.
“I remember feeling helpless that I’m not down there,” Aldridge said.
All through the night, his evacuees asked if they would be all right.
“I told them, ‘We’re going to be all right,’” he said. “The whole night I was like, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’”
Most of the night, he feared that was a lie.
The fire drew near at one point, just over the hill, and he told everyone to shelter in place, to stay in their cars. He thought their only hope was that the fire would pass over them quickly. And then, suddenly, the wind shifted. It never got that close again.
Without Aldridge, Joe Grey believes, there would have been panic in the parking lot.
“There were grown men there starting to lose it,” Grey said. “If he hadn’t been there, people would have probably left, gone every which way.”
Grey doesn’t believe anyone would have made it out had they tried to flee.
Hours into the ordeal, after children finally fell asleep in the backseats of cars, a tender and engine from the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department in Calistoga made it through and pulled into the parking lot.
And as dawn broke, Sgt. Cutting made his way up to the lodge and helped lead the caravan of cars down the hill, through debris and downed power lines. Aldridge brought up the rear, making sure everyone got down.
At the bottom, they told the evacuees about available shelters.
“And then they drove away,” said Aldridge, who drove home to hug his kids and tell his wife he loved her before heading back to work.
The fire had come within 100 yards of the lodge, burning everything around them. Then it had skipped off to the side. The lodge survived, too.
Mendenhall said he’s trying to contact Aldridge. He’d like to buy him dinner or at least a beer, something for saving so many lives.
On Tuesday, after Arrington figured out who the mystery deputy was, she called and left him a message thanking him.
“He was a human,” she said. “He was a dad. He was the best.”
Aldridge doesn’t feel like he did anything special.
“I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” he said.
But it wasn’t anyone else. It was Aldridge. He still thinks about the people who refused to leave when deputies banged on their doors that night. And he thinks about what could have happened had the wind kept blowing in their direction instead of shifting.
But he doesn’t dwell on that.
“It stays with you, but you put it on the back burner,” he said. “You keep doing your job.”
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