Chico Fire Department's return from Thomas Fire

There were dangers at every turn, and working as a safety officer, Kelso says the first 30 hour shift was overwhelming.

Posted: Dec 26, 2017 5:23 PM

"I left Chico about 7p.m., knew I'd get there by 3 a.m. And as soon as you get there, you go right to the line," said Division Chief John Kelso, Chico fire Department.

The call for help went out December 4th, the very night the Thomas Fire began near Santa Paula, rapidly spreading north.

"We still had a number of homes still on fire, active mains melted and spewing out natural gas, power lines down," said Kelso.

There were dangers at every turn, and working as a safety officer, Kelso says the first 30 hour shift was overwhelming.

"Both for the occupants, residents trying to return home, and the firefighters," said Kelso.

Kelso says there was something insidious and unpredictable about this fire.

"Fire activity increased in the morning, at night, but throughout the day was a constant battle we couldn't predict a lot of it," said Kelso. "I think at one point we had 34 helicopters dropping water - you're just trying to take some momentum out of the fire, but with those winds, there was no taking the momentum out."

Not only did the fire jump over the dozer lines, it went underneath retardant in some cases.

"It's very quick, when you look at these neighborhoods, you see the path the fire took, it just ripped through homes. You see the spot fires where landed on other homes not even in the same neighborhood," said Kelso.

The loss of nearly 800 family homes, and the loss of one firefighter's life, made for an emotional prelude to Christmas.
Kelso says he spent his days off helping friends who had loved ones in the area, checking on them all, one by one.

"On our days off we'd go and check those addresses, make sure you have some peace at home, make sure you're connected, a lot of people couldn't get through on the phones, so it was good to check in on people, give them some assurances," said Kelso.

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