Family fights off fire to save Pleasants Valley home

Jason Shurnas and his parents saved their home from the LNU Lightning Complex Fire in rural Vacaville while emergency crews were stretched thin and responding to other areas of the fire. He is shown at the family home, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Aaron Rosenblatt/Daily Republic)

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By Todd R. Hansen
McNaughton Media

Jason Shurnas has driven up Putah Creek Road countless times to the home where his mother and father live.

He called the drive on Aug. 19 the “worst drive of my life.”

Shurnas said he could see the fire “cascading down the hill” as he made his way up from his own family’s home on Main Street in Winters.

He said he blew past the intersection where the California Highway Patrol was setting up a roadblock and only hoped the officers did not come after him. They didn’t.

“When I turned around the corner (onto Pleasants Valley Road), I thought I was driving into hell,” he said.

The next few hours may have actually been worse as Shurnas and his parents, Pat and Debbie Shurnas, battled against a fire that was coming at the house from three directions.

They had to park the “escape vehicle” out in a field, air conditioning running for his parents’ pets. If the fight seemed hopeless, they would decide then whether to go down the front driveway or the side road to the property – whichever seemed safest.

The saving grace may have been the 60-kilowatt generator his parents have, which powered the well pump so they had water for their firefighting efforts.

“And the one thing I would say to save your home is defensive space,” Shurnas said. “My father, every year, mows the grass down to the ground. Every June.”

Shurnas said the range fencing was lost, and a lot of trees and bushes – mostly landscaping – could not be saved, but there had to be priorities.

The fire traveled 500 feet down the driveway before they finally stopped it in its path.

“I couldn’t get out; I couldn’t keep it out,” Shurnas said, noting the gusting winds and the heat of the blaze.

Shurnas admits he frequently wondered how his wife and 4-year-old son were doing back in Winters. They had an escape plan, too, but Shurnas had no way of knowing if Winters was being evacuated.

He said he and his father talked about whether to stay or leave at least six or seven times during the night, but it seemed they were actually making progress in the fight so they stayed.

“Life is more important than property, and the last thing I would promote is self-help,” Shurnas said. “But it worked for us.”

Shurnas said he called 911 at least a half-dozen times, probably more, but no help ever arrived.

He admits he was pretty angry. It was not the first time in the past 12 months fire crews had not shown up when the house was threatened.

The first of those fires was in October after a forced blackout, but a line broke and ignited some dry grass behind the house. His mother was the only one at home at the time.

A traffic accident in June ignited another blaze that grew much larger and threatened more homes. Fire crews eventually did arrive to help with that one.

Shurnas said now that he has had more time to think, he understands that there was no fire department response because there were no fire crews available.

“It hit everyone so hard and so fast,” Shurnas said. “We would have liked fire response, but we didn’t get it. No one did.”

Shurnas said he also understands they were pretty lucky and certainly did not suffer the kind of damage others in the area have sustained.

“I feel tremendously for my neighbors up the hill,” Shurnas said. “I think one of my neighbors were asleep when their home was on fire.”

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