Alhambra heroes fight Thomas Fire

Engine 71's crew, from left: Engineer Cody Vo, Firefighter Fernando Navarro, Captain Andrew Messore, and Firefighter Jaime Olmos.

In the early darkness of Dec. 4, 2017, fire broke out north of the town of Santa Paula in Ventura County and grew rapidly, becoming the Thomas Fire, the largest forest fire in California history. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the standing agreement of mutual aid support among fire departments kicked in, and units from all over California and beyond responded immediately.

By 10:30 a.m. that day, four Alhambra fire fighters, Captain Andrew Messore, Engineer Cody Vo, Firefighter Fernando Navarro, and Firefighter Jaime Olmos from the Alhambra Fire Department, rolled out of their station in Engine #71 and headed to Ventura County. They were deployed on the fire line for 15 days. When they arrived, they were joined by fire crews from Monrovia, Arcadia, and Monterey Park to form a “strike team” of 18 men and four engines called 1205A.

Strike team 1205A was immediately assigned to a neighborhood in Santa Paula that was already starting to burn. Relying on experience and training, the team saved the homes they could but sadly could not stop all the damage as the wind-whipped fire pushed on relentlessly.

In disaster situations such as the Thomas Fire, the protocol is for a team to work a 24-hour shift before being relieved for 24 hours and repeat. But the nature of emergency is that not everything is in place when and where needed. Strike team 1205A was on the line for 36 hours straight.

When finally relieved, they headed for the hastily prepared staging area at the Ventura County Fair Grounds. There, the Alhambra first responders were able to finally eat a hot meal, shower, inspect and maintain their equipment, and find a place to sleep. Twenty four hours later they grabbed a few gallons of drinking water and a box of eight sandwiches (four for lunch and four for dinner) and sped back into action.

As the fire spread in unpredictable directions, the strike team next moved to Carpinteria, which was then in danger. Each time they arrived at a new “hot spot” the men tried to get some advance knowledge or “triage” of the situation: where water could be found, where an open field or swimming pool could provide emergency shelter if needed, and what they could use as an escape route as a last resort.

Besides fighting the fire, 1205A helped with brush clearance and alerted residents to the danger and urged them to evacuate. They also provided the community with the latest news on the fire. From Carpinteria they moved on to the next danger spot in Montecito and then to Fillmore to stay ahead of the constantly moving fire.

Perhaps the most traumatic event for all the fire fighters was the death of one of their own, CAL FIRE Engineer Cory Iverson of San Diego. His death in the line of duty was a sobering reminder that it could happen to any one of them.

With the fire receding, and after 15 days of continuous firefighting, the men of 1205A were released from the front lines to return home to their families. Alhambra’s finest had done their part and were ready to come home. Once home they watched with particular sadness the television accounts of the mud slides that did so much damage to the areas they had fought so hard to protect.

“It was a privilege and honor to have worked with such a professional group of people in one of California's worse natural disasters,” said Captain Messore. “It was with a heavy heart that we returned home knowing that one of our brothers would not be.”


fireMontecitoSanta Paulaengine 71first respondersmud slidestraumaticemergency

Jan 2019


Copyright © 2014, Alhambra Chamber of Commerce. All Rights Reserved.