Story Kelli Anderson Photos Steven Krause
In the very first moments of a night that would unspool like a bad dream, Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom Jr. experienced an emotional gut punch he’ll never forget. At about 10:45 p.m. on October 8, soon after he had arrived amid howling winds at a fire at the Atwood Ranch, he called Cal Fire dispatch for more resources. With fires breaking out all over the 707, he was told, there weren’t any resources available. It was the first time in his career a call for help had come up empty. “We are used to being able to call in the cavalry and the cavalry shows up,” says Norrbom. “It was heartbreaking to know we were on our own.”
Three hours later, as he and a team of firefighters were trying to tame what would become known as the Nuns Fire at the Atwood Ranch, he got another jolt: The fire had jumped Highway 12 and was turning Glen Ellen’s Trinity Oaks neighborhood into a hellscape. Norrbom, a Glen Ellen native, handed command of his section over to a captain on-site, got in his Chevy Tahoe and raced into town. “To give up the division as the chief like that, it’s way out of the box,” says Glen Ellen Captain Ted Hassler. “When I heard him do that, I knew we were in for something. He knew what the fire was doing—it was going to burn down his hometown. Glen Ellen is in his blood.”
Norrbom’s local roots are, by California standards, ancient. His Norrbom forebears arrived in the Valley in 1849, before California was a state, and gave their name to the road that winds from downtown Sonoma into the hills to the north. His fire service lineage is nearly as venerable. His grandfather, James Norrbom, was Glen Ellen fire chief from 1942-49. His dad, Bob Sr., who runs an auto repair shop in town, has been a fire protection district board member for more than 40 years. Bob Jr.’s first job was changing spark plugs in Glen Ellen’s fire engines. He became a volunteer at 18, and a full-time firefighter in Sonoma in 1990. Now a next generation of Norrboms is following the family tradition: Norrbom’s 22-year-old son, Mike, is a firefighter and paramedic with Sonoma, and his 17-year-old son, Matt, is a member of Kenwood Fire’s Explorer program.
Bob Jr. is well versed in the history of disastrous Valley fires. As a teenager, he had heard stories of the 1964 fires from men who fought them; his dad had told him his own father’s stories about the 1946 fire out of Hood Mountain; and he had read accounts of the 1923 Mayacamas Fire, which wiped out much of the Springs area and burned into Glen Ellen, inspiring the town to establish the fire department Norrbom has served as a volunteer for 30 years.
He knew the eastern Mayacamas hills, with their sunny aspect, rugged topography and rich fuel beds, were likely to burn again. In fact, about 10 years ago, Sonoma Valley fire departments and Cal Fire had created a “pre-plan” map of the Valley marked with houses, roads, safety zones and evacuation routes. Glen Ellen isn’t even on that map. “I never thought Glen Ellen would be a factor,” says Norrbom. “Besides, in 1923, they fought fires with gunny sacks and shovels. Today we’ve got aircraft, we’ve got fire engines, we’ve got a municipal water system, we have all these tools. It’s not going to be an issue, right? Boy, was I wrong.”
As the fire swept down Henno and Dunbar Roads toward Warm Springs Road, Norrbom sent out an “active 911” alert calling in all 75 or so of the Valley’s active personnel—paid and volunteer—whether they we were at home asleep, on vacation in Tahoe or hunting in Humboldt. Then Norrbom, Kenwood Chief Daren Bellach and Cal Fire Captain Sean Jerry practiced triage the best they could. “When the fire is that big, the priority is keeping it in the hills and out of the town,” says Norrbom. “Like with Coffey Park, once it gets into an urbanized area, it’s really hard to stop.”
Petaluma had sent some engines, and there were a few trucks from Santa Rosa that had come down before the Tubbs Fire had reached the county. Strike teams from Marin and San Francisco had also appeared, thanks to personal Valley connections. Altogether,
Norrbom had just 30 fire suppression vehicles to work with. It wasn’t nearly enough. “I wished I could have waved my magic wand and had fire trucks appear like that,” he says. “We’ve always trained to the fact that someday we’re going to have a major fire in Sonoma Valley, but not four. The Nuns Fire alone would have overwhelmed all the combined resources of Sonoma County. The sheer volume of fires in the county was unprecedented.”
Norrbom had learned a lot from two weeks of working the 2015 Valley Fire, which had initially bypassed Middletown before the wind pushed a flank around to level the town. He knew it was critical to tie up the fire’s flanks to keep it out of downtown Glen Ellen. As Jerry sent bulldozers up and down Arnold Drive to carve breaks around town, Norrbom calculated how to most effectively deploy their other resources. “Because Bob has lived here, he was so specific in telling us exactly where he was drawing his lines, to make the fire go left up that hill, or we’re going to save this, the fire is already here,” says
Hassler, who ended up helping to save Bob Sr.’s house on Arnold Drive. “You don’t get that at most fires. It was invaluable.”
Eventually, the cavalry did show up, in force. Firefighters from all over California, as well as 17 other states and Australia, streamed into the Cal Fire base camp in Santa Rosa. In time there were so many divisions operating that Cal Fire ran out of radio channels.
Norrbom became branch director of the Nuns Fire, which would eventually merge with the Norrbom, Adobe, Partrick and Pressley fires. (Visiting fire personnel reading Cal Fire’s Incident Action Plans couldn’t understand why “Norrbom” was showing up as both “branch director” and “fire.” At least those documents spelled the name right: to Bob Jr.’s exasperation, the Cal Fire website and a vendor selling commemorative T-shirts at base camp spelled the fire “Norbbom.”)
“Being branch director gave me something to focus on besides the destruction and the disaster of the community,” Norrbom says. “I had no power in my house anyway, and I didn’t want to go back to my normal routine. I wasn’t ready for that.”
Norrbom worked the fire, with required down time, for 17 straight days, getting most of his sleep on a brown recliner in the Glen Ellen firehouse. It was a week before he made it back to his house in Agua Caliente. The smoke and constant communication with his troops shattered his voice. “You could barely hear him on the radio, he was so hoarse,” says Hassler. “He just gave himself to this fire. He was there from the first minute until the fire was 100 percent out.”
Before it was over, the Nuns Fire would claim two lives and destroy 54,382 acres and 1,355 structures—including 183 homes in Glen Ellen—making it the sixth most destructive fire in state history. “The Valley Fire was actually more destructive, but this fire in my own community, where I was born and raised, was much more disastrous,” says Norrbom. “I didn’t know anybody in Lake County. It was really sad to see as much destruction as there was, but it was 10 times harder in my community where I knew, that’s Chris’s house, that’s Scott’s house, that’s Rick’s house. It was very stressful.”
Months later, there are still lessons and silver linings to sort out. Some things need improvement: community education on fire-safe construction and landscaping; emergency alert systems, evacuation planning–even Norrbom had never made a list of things to grab in an evacuation–an updated pre-plan map that includes Glen Ellen. Some things worked well: Norrbom is immensely proud of how his department performed pulling double shifts with no relief for days, and he is still dazzled by the generosity of the community, particularly the restaurants and food vendors who donated countless meals and man-hours to the effort. “I’ve been at fires from San Diego to Siskiyou County and I’ve never seen anything like the citizen support we had here,” he says. Though he has heard some aggrieved, “Where were you guys?” comments from burned-out homeowners, the gratitude has been overwhelming, too. People still try to pay for his meals when he’s out. He appreciates the thought but wishes they wouldn’t, because now he really is ready to get back to his normal routine.