Hurricane-like winds roared across the state of California, creating a catalyst that ignited wildfires Oct. 8, 2017. The fires tore through northern California, scorching more than 160,000 acres and leaving more than 15,000 people homeless.
One of the hardest hit areas was Santa Rosa, which lost 3,000 homes to the Tubbs fire.
Senior Airman Martin Baglien, 349th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, and his wife Marissa, were sleeping in their home in Santa Rosa, when they were startled awake by a pounding at their door at 2 a.m. that first morning. As they answered the knock, Marissa’s family stood outside. Their house was gone.
“We were dead asleep, just like everyone else,” Baglien said.
After answering the door, he ran into the street.
“You could see the glow all around us, a total 360,” he said. “You couldn’t know the extent of it.”
To get an idea of the scope of the fire, he and his wife drove to a high point.
“From there, we could see how massive this fire was,” he said. “It was obvious how bad things were getting.”
Driving around, they saw downed power lines and office buildings burning with no one around.
“It was truly humbling seeing my city burn,” he said.
They immediately jumped into action.
“We went around to friends’ houses, families’ houses, neighbors’ houses, waking up everyone we could,” Baglien continued. “A lot of people had no idea.”
The next move was to go and grab water and start giving it to whoever needed it.
“We just drove around wherever they would let us,” he said. “It was a battle of trying to get in somewhere before they would block off the road. We were just trying to do whatever we could to help, whether that was finding stray animals, waking up neighbors, or bringing people water.”
The homes on the street his family lived on were completely burned to the ground. Chimneys stand above the ashes, like gravestones in a cemetery, tin rememberance of what once was. Charred cars and appliances are all that remains of families’ possessions.
“The neighbors next to my family have four kids, which is pretty hard to deal with,” Baglien said. “They worked out of their home. To see it gone is humbling, to say the least.”
The next day, after his family arrived, the Bagliens drove around giving out clothes, blankets, and water to anyone who was distraught. While trying to figure out where the fire was, they determined what actions to take.
The second day of the fires, he got a call from a friend with bad news.
“My buddy, he works in ambulances, told me, ‘Hey, I just got a radio call. The fire is coming over your ridge. You’ve got to pack your [things] because it’s coming,'” Baglien said.
They immediately drove home to find their neighborhood in chaos.
“People were freaking out, which is just so unnecessary,” he described. “We were seeing fights at gas stations and over water.”
So, Martin, his wife, and in-laws all evacuated. The Airman and his wife sent their family to Petaluma where they would be safe with other family members. However, the firefighter and his wife felt wrong about leaving.
“After we sent them down to Petaluma, my wife and I headed to our evacuation center and just started helping, doing everything we can,” he said. “I told them I was a firefighter and they said, ‘Hey, we can totally use you.'”
The scene was chaotic, he described. He ran around unloading ambulances, hooking people up to oxygen, scrambling to find extension cords, and passing out clothes.
“People were coming up to me saying, ‘I just want to go home,'” he said. “And you just had to look at them, smile, and say, ‘We’ll figure this out.'”
In the midst of all the chaos, Baglien said he saw a lot of joy.
“The community really came together,” he said. “We saw a lot more smiles than frowns, which is truly beautiful.”
Baglien and his wife, a nursing student, devoted themselves to volunteering and doing everything they could to help people out. As an Air Force Reserve firefighter, he really wanted to help out in that way.
“Everyday I would get up, put on my wildland gear, and go to either the nearest strike team or go to the evacuation center where they staged,” he said. “I’d get turned away, which is understandable. But, I’d tell them, ‘I’ll roll hoses, I’ll cook, I’ll clean,’ because you got to look at the bigger picture.”
But Martin and Marissa were not deterred. Whenever he got turned down, the two would just find another place to volunteer.
“You just give time,” he said. “Because it’s all about your family, your friends, your community. It was really important to do whatever we could for those people in need.”
Even though he and his wife were working themselves to exhaustion every day, Baglien still felt something was missing.
“I was getting up and doing everything that I could,” he said. “But, it didn’t feel like enough. I never had that fulfillment.”
Finally, he got a call from Travis Air Force Base to report to base. The Atlas Fire was rapidly spreading in Solano County.
“I jumped at the chance to go to base,” he said. “I was on standby, that’s where you start to see the bigger picture. In the fire department, everyone wants to be on the fire line; fight the fire, do the job, and be a hero. But at the same time, you have to know where your response is and where you are needed.”
The fires have since diminished, leaving desolation in their wake. Now, the recovery begins for thousands across California. Many have taken notice of what is truly important in their lives and have leaned on their community members for support.
“I think with all the destruction and chaos and horrible things we were seeing, a lot of people still got out with their skin,” Baglien said. “Seeing people lose everything, but they still had those smiles, because they still had each other; and that’s all that matters. They realized the things they lost were just [things]. It’s really good for people to see this.”
Baglien credited his Air Force Reserve training for helping him stay calm in such a stressful situation.
“The training we get with the 349th [CES] is wonderful and I truly love it,” he said. “We get very good training from everyone there. I could watch everything – combining the classes we’ve taken and the lectures – you start getting into it, and watching the fire and winds and understanding how hot it is. It really helped me to stay calm.”
Baglien’s home still stands, though his in-laws’ is gone. But, they are getting help.
“We are getting a lot of support from the community for our family,” he said. “Right now, they are living with us and various family members. Someone even just donated us a trailer to use for a while.”
“It’s really beautiful to see the community come together, and definitely for the better,” the firefighter said with hope. “It’s really important that we continue to overcome and we continue to push forward from this, because it really is just another day.”