First responders go from Camp Fire to home for the holidays

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was offering free N95 masks at City Hall, Winters Fire Captain Art Mendoza was on hand to speak to the Express about the fire department’s situation and his personal experience as a firefighter in his 30 plus year career. In that time Mendoza has been no stranger to missing and making up family holidays. He tells the story of a Christmas he knew he’d be working far away, so he and his family lavishly celebrated together days early. However, while headed out to location, he and his team were called off. He laughs remembering how he came home to a confused, albeit overjoyed, wife and jokingly mimed how he scrambled to buy last minute gifts so his children could have his presence with presents on Christmas day. Mendoza laughs when he remembers having two Christmases that year. Mendoza says his wife prefers him to be called simply “Art” in their home. Smiling wide he says, “She tells the crews — you know, off-duty firefighters — ‘You’re not working at this  barbecue. He’s not “Cap” or “Captain,” right now he’s Art.'” Of his profession Mendoza says, “We fight fire aggressively, we do it as a team. We set a goal and work through it, so by the end of the day we’re rewarded.” Swiping through his phone past pictures of rough, charred and burnt out wreckage, he finds the one he’s looking for. It’s a picture of filthy, exhausted and smiling firefighters, clustered together in full turnout gear and helmets. They are all tired but beaming wide behind a fire truck. Mendoza proudly brags, “That’s my crew.” He spoke of two firefighters working on the line who, having just come back from military duty, didn’t have the opportunity to be with their families for long before being called to the Camp Fire. In the last situation reports and daily updates between Mendoza and Interim Fire Chief Matt Schechla, they had agreed that the two volunteers would come home early. Mendoza would go up Saturday to retrieve them to return home to spend Thanksgiving with their families. Victor Diaz, a family man from East Sacramento, has been married 12 years to his wife Heather. He has three children: Sofia age 5, Joshua age 8, and Daniel age 12. While on deployment, Diaz missed all his children’s birthdays, family events and Christmas. He was anxious to attend their planned, but not promised, Thanksgiving in Oregon with his wife’s family. There his children could play with his in-laws, ride horses and their families could be near and, at last, whole. Diaz came home early September after being deployed for almost 400 days. He started working for CAL FIRE and according to Captain Mendoza was laid off early in November. He then signed on to volunteer for the Winters Fire Department on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Diaz left for Butte County early that Thursday as part of Schechla’s strike team. The team supported the initial attack on the Camp Fire which had erupted early that morning. Cheyne Baumgart has been with his wife Alyssa for seven years, as long as he’s been a firefighter in the United States Air Force. He is a new and first time father to his daughter Lillian, a full-time firefighter in Woodbridge and a volunteer for Winters Fire Department. After 190 days deployed with the Air Force, Baumgart came home in late October. He started with Winters Fire on Thursday, Nov. 8, and followed Diaz to Butte County with Captain Lopez’s team the next day. He aided in fire suppression and the wide evacuation efforts. Wind speeds had approached 50 miles per hour and spurred the overnight 20,000-acre conflagration to an overwhelming 100,000 acres in a matter of hours. This rapid increase prevented residents from Concow, Paradise and other communities to be fully evacuated before the wildfire arrived. This was Baumgart’s first shift in Winters, and he was on duty to cover the city while Cal OES engines and Schechla’s strike team moved to location. “Our first priority is obviously the city of Winters and so we send out OES and we can help, we are always able to do that, but people still gotta come back and watch this place, too,” said Baumgart. The first responders that stay local are still on duty to maintain peace, safety and put out the odd deep-fried turkey fire. Those that remained, although closer to home, were still far away from their families. “It’s all about percentages right? Well, we were sending anywhere from five to six officers per week up there for 16 hours per shift — a two hour drive up, a 12 hour shift [there] and two hours back down,” said Winters Police Chief John Miller. He added, “Over Thanksgiving it was Sgt. Ramirez and Cpl. Brown, but throughout the entire week it was pretty much most of our staff. Gordon and Barajas went up on the first night when it was just chaos, and, yeah, literally, just got thrown right into it.” Though Cpl. Brown was not available for comment at the time of this printing, Ofc. Victor Barajas of Winters Police — on the force for almost 18 months — vividly recalls knocking on doors of Paradise homes to make sure that residents under evacuation orders where out, even while the home next door caught on fire. Barajas also remembers that while holding order at a shelter for the displaced, distressed residents were visibly calmed by his police presence and some faces were even cheered after noticing his ‘Winters Police’ patch. Diaz says of first responders. “One way or another, they have to work, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays —  they work.” When asked about families, Diaz said, “I think it’s harder for them, for the families than for us.” “Yeah,” Baumgart agreed as Diaz continued: “We get distracted. We come to work, we do what we need to do and they stay home as un-whole, so I think it’s harder for them.” Baumgart emphatically agrees. “Definitely, they pick up the slack. He (Diaz) was gone for a year. I wasn’t gone for as long. I was gone for 190 days, but still, my wife had to fill both our roles every day I was away,” he said. Diaz adds, “And when we are at work we are together, a team. There are a lot of us to help each other, but when we are away, they are the only ones. They don’t have us.” When asked about being retrieved the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Diaz said, “(Schechla) made it happen. It wasn’t a for sure thing that I was able to come home for Thanksgiving, but I think our families know that sometimes we can, and sometimes it isn’t possible. So I told my wife, ‘I’m here, I’ll ask, we’ll see what happens’ and he made it happen.” Later adding, “I was very happy to be home. We all rode horses, had fun, we all had lots of fun” says Diaz. When asked of the sacrifices to family time his duty requires, Baumgart says of his wife Alyssa, “She is understanding,” laughs Baumgart, and slowly nodding adds, “Patient.”]]>

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