As fire raged, community heroes helped their own

By Denisen Hartlove on September 23, 2013

Sandi and April - community response_websiteSandi Brooks remembers standing on her Morgan Territory Road property a week before the Mt. Diablo fire started, looking at the dry grass surrounding the area.

“If this thing ever catches fire it’s going to go up like a torch,” she said at the time.

She was right. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the fire burned a hair-raising 3,111 acres of land before the approximately 1,000 personnel brought in from districts around the state fought it to extinction.

That number, however, doesn’t include the scores of locals who stepped forward to help members of their community.

As SUVs towing trailers out of Morgan Territory passed gigantic fire trucks, bulldozers, and equipment heading to fight the Mt. Diablo fire, and American Red Cross representatives huddled with local officials in preparation for opening emergency shelters if needed, locals rallied to support one another as well.

Residents respond quickly

Clayton resident Jane Gerow saw the fire start on her neighbor’s property Sunday around 1:30 p.m. “It started directly across from my house,” she said. “It went up to the top of the mountain and over the ridge and down Morgan Territory … My neighbor saw and started yelling and alerting everyone.”

As CalFire kicked into gear with the sound of sirens racing up Marsh Canyon Road towards the spreading fire, residents started making plans, some loading horses into trailers to head out.

“They told us there was a voluntary evacuation on Sunday, but it was calmed down by then,” said Brooks, who has more than 15 horses on her property along with other livestock.

Meanwhile, other residents, intent on getting their horses to safety as the fire grew, gathered at the Park ‘n Ride lot near Peacock Creek, where they were greeted by locals ready and eager to help.

Chris Barnhart of the Concord Mt. Diablo Trail Riding Association was leaving the grounds with 13 horses.

“It’s just incredible, the way everybody came together and helped each other,” she said.

“The mayor’s son stopped by with water, Clayton residents brought us food, tanks of water for the horses. It made me cry, they were such generous people.”

Water and pet food

At the library, city officials gathered with American Red Cross and other emergency workers to set up a shelter for evacuees. Their efforts, however, turned out to be mostly unneeded, as one local after another arrived to offer everything from lodging in their own homes to bags of dog and cat food for the pets of those fleeing the fire.

Virginia Fraser arrived with her cat, Emma. A resident of Curry Canyon, Fraser was a block captain, and on seeing the black smoke and flames around 2 p.m., helped alert neighbors before leaving herself. “I thought it’d be a nice quiet day, sitting there reading the Sunday papers,” she said. “Then boom, all this.”

Bonnie Slatkin, walked over to the library with her dog Surfer, and offered food or the use of a room in her homes for evacuees like Fraser.

“I thought I’d just come down and see if there’s anything I can do to help,” she said, echoing the sentiment of a number of others with the same idea. Another family gathered resources and brought scores of sandwiches to the fire house for the personnel working the fire.

Meanwhile, information was at a premium. As the fire was not within city limits, city officials received periodic updates from CalFire personnel, and passed it on to residents through television and social media outlets.

On Monday, however, as the fire seemed to wane and fire officials temporarily gained the upper hand, an information blackout ensued as the incident command changed hands from Contra Costa Fire Protection to Cal Fire and the command center moved from Station 11 in Clayton to Camp Parks in Dublin.

Suddenly, around 6 p.m. Monday, the winds changed, and the fire that seemed to be on its way to being contained flared back up and raced down the hill towards ranches and people on Morgan Territory Road.

“It looked like a volcano,” said Brooks. “The black smoke, and the red, and you could see the flames.”

Everyone from firefighters to residents to even members of some visiting news crews picked up hoses, and helped get horses and other animals to safety on higher ground.

Long-time resident – and former firefighter – John Khashabi owns his own fire truck, and helped hose down his neighbors’ roofs.

With the flow of information from CalFire temporarily cut off, the task fell to social media to pass along status updates.

Need for information

The anonymous Mayor of Claycord found his own website,, an information hub.

“I didn’t even realize that was going to happen,” he said of the hundreds of comments his blog attracted, passing along real-time news updates and offers of assistance. “It started out like any other fire. I’ve covered many other fires over the years, and there was nothing to say this one was going to be any different.”

At a friend’s house when the fire started, the “Mayor” made his way closer to the fire, where he continued to receive updates on progress, sent by everyone from locals manning scanners, residents watching the flames burn towards their homes, and even an occasional firefighter on break from his duties.

“l felt like I had an obligation to be there for the people who need the information,” he said.

At last, after what seemed like an eternity but was just hours after the fire burned ferociously to Morgan Territory, threatening to jump the road in several places, the announcement was made that the fire had been contained.

Around 3 a.m., residents began returning home, reversing the earlier sight as they passed fire trucks and equipment rumbling down the street and out of Morgan Territory.

City officials gathered to put their heads together, see what had been done right, and what they’d learned for the next time fire lights up the sky over Mt. Diablo.

Of all the lessons learned, however, Mayor Julie Pierce said the community’s stepping forward was no surprise.

“The level of generosity in this community never ceases to amaze me,” she said. “They are just consistently the best people you could ever ask for in a community. They care about each other, they take care of each other.”

“It really is the exact definition of a community,” Pierce said. “They come through every time.”

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