Stories David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause
I’m Not A Hero
My Wife Is
You get the feeling when you first meet him that Chris Landry could have starred in the movie Backdraft.
It’s not that he looks that much like Kurt Russell or William Baldwin. It’s just that there is something unmistakably solid, competent and can-do about him. And he’s been fighting fires since he joined the Glen Ellen Fire Department in 1993 at the age of 17. He’s now 41.
He’s also an elite search-and-rescue professional, a member of California Task Force 4, a FEMA-managed, urban search-and-rescue team attached to the Oakland Fire Department where he’s a lieutenant.
On September 20, on his birthday weekend, he was called up to fly to Florida to catch a C-130 military transport to Puerto Rico. He spent two weeks chain-sawing routes into remote villages, identifying resource needs of stranded residents and providing humanitarian aid. His efforts supported the needs of 89 towns and villages, and he was released in time to fly home on Friday, October 6.
He spent part of that weekend with his wife, Catarina, and their two children. Sunday evening he was getting ready to go to bed so he could go to work at 5 the next morning. “Then I got paged.”
It was sometime after 10 p.m.; there was a fire. The location was Beltane Ranch on Highway 12, minutes from his Glen Ellen home. It was the very beginning of the massive Nuns Fire. And this one was personal.
“I jumped into my pickup and went straight to Beltane.” He fought the fire for a good four hours, helping the ranch’s family members—all friends of his—push back the fire when flames cut power to the water tank pump. Embers were flying horizontally on 70 mph winds and flames were licking at the residence buildings.
His wife called at about 1:30 and said she was being evacuated from the family’s three-acre compound on Henno Road. “Are you coming home?” she asked.
“Not now, Honey,” Chris answered. He wasn’t done with the Beltane battle.
By about 2:30 he was satisfied with the progress of the fight and decided to go home to see if he still had a house. He found the fire coming down the bed of Calabazas Creek and around the hillside toward his house and barn and a next-door neighbor’s house. He was alone.
With an old family heirloom Kubota tractor he pushed the fire away from his barn and house until a hydraulic line caught fire and the tractor quit. He fought back by hand with a fire axe and a shovel. Then the axe handle broke.
In the heat of battle, when Henno Road was a virtual inferno, he knew he needed water to fight with; he had two large tanks with 6,000 gallons of storage but no way to get it out. Then a Marin County FD battalion chief came by, brought him a portable pump and helped him set up lines. That turned the tide.
“I didn’t really put this fire out,” he said later. “I bumped it around the houses.”
He lost a large shed, a chicken house, the Kubota and a family trampoline, but the barn, the family home and the house next door were all safe, as was the lone chicken, Greta, some sheep and Andy, a Sicilian burro.
“I guess you could say I saved my own ass,” says Landry with a smile.
He also credits the sheep and the burro with keeping his fields trimmed. “The best way to clear a defensible space,” he says, “is with animals.”
Landry dismisses any suggestion that he’s a hero. “I’m not a hero,” he says emphatically. “My wife is the hero, living on a ranch where everything that can go wrong happens when I’m away. Which is a lot.”
Fires, he says, are scary and destructive, but “they show the strength of our community. People came out of the woodwork. It’s what we do. Neighbors help neighbors.”
‘Take a Stand or Everybody Dies’
Keenan Lee leads fight to save retirement home.
Keenan Lee is tall, precise, intense and direct. When you meet him for the first time you think, “fireman.”
Keenan lives in Glen Ellen in a subdivision of modest homes at the southern periphery of the Sonoma Developmental Center (more about that later), but he works for the Santa Rosa Fire Department on Yulupa Avenue as an engineer. His job is driving and operating the firefighting machinery. But on October 8 he got a battlefield promotion.
That’s the morning he was detailed to Station 8 in Roseland as an acting captain. It was a Sunday and not much was happening until they put out a car fire in the afternoon and some small nuisance fires in Olive Park.
A little after dinner, the wind picked up and they were called out for a grass fire on both sides of Highway 101 near Windsor.
“At that point,” he remembers, “I was only vaguely aware of a fire in Calistoga.”
They had “buttoned up” the grass fire when a call came through from Cal Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville requesting “all available fire personnel” to respond to the worsening situation on Mark West Springs Road. “We tried to get up Mark West,” Keenan explains, “but it was impassable, and we lost radio contact with the task force leader.”
At that point, the battalion chief came on the radio to announce that a large assisted-living complex on Round Barn Boulevard, called “Vineyard Commons,” was in direct line of the rampaging Tubbs fire. The facility was presumed to be fully occupied, with 100 or more residents. The battalion chief said, “We have to make a stand here or everybody’s going to die.”
Keenan says he responded, “OK, we’ll hold.” But by then, “the fire was five minutes away.” The facility was on top of a hill facing a draw, in perfect line with the wind that was driving the fire, and part of the building facing the fire was being renovated and lacked exterior siding.
Keenan explains his team laid out 600 feet of progressive hose (connecting one length to the next) to reach the fire from the hydrant. As they were doing this, three or four elderly residents tried to escape from the building with walkers. “We have to get out, there’s a fire,” they shouted.
Keenan told them they were going to die if they didn’t get back inside, and they reversed course.
“The fire came up out of that draw with just incredible intensity,” he says. “We were laying down a lot of water, but the fire did get into the exterior wall a little bit before we got water on it.”
While that was happening, Keenan had an engineer on the truck flowing water from a fixed nozzle onto the roof.
More engines arrived until there was a full complement of five.
Then someone spotted fire in a void space inside the building. To reach it, they had to pry open a locked fire door, which revealed an interior space already charred.
Meanwhile, all the residents were moved into an unaffected part of the building behind protective fire doors.
Ultimately, despite the team’s last-minute arrival and a raging, wind-whipped fire, the epic stand Keenan and his team took succeeded, saving the building and all its occupants, who were loaded onto city buses and driven to safety. “We got the fire out,” he says with satisfaction, “but if this had been a stand-alone fire and rescue, without everything else that was happening, people would be talking about it for years.”
After moving up into Fountaingrove, Keenan refueled his truck, moved over to Badger Road where “we saved a bunch of houses there,” and then, exhausted and hungry, the team stopped at Oliver’s Market in Rincon Valley. “They opened their doors to us, said take whatever you need. We got to eat some real food. It was great.”
Keenan was ultimately left in command of the task force in charge of a Fountaingrove structure fire until mid-morning Tuesday. His task force ate again at the St. Francis Safeway store, which also opened its doors and its bathrooms, before being restaged at Oakmont, part of three task forces, with 15 engines, to take a stand in the adult-living subdivision. They managed to keep the fires at bay, although not in time to save 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin’s home, which had already burned.
It was not until Thursday afternoon that Keenan was “cut loose” and went home for “a little rest,” the first horizontal sleep he had since Sunday.
Meanwhile, Keenan’s Glen Ellen home came close to burning when a shed behind the house next door was ignited by an ember. A passing fireman doused the blaze in the nick of time.
So is Keenan Lee a hero? According to his battalion chief, “The real heroes are all they guys (and women) who left their houses with no idea if they would lose their homes in order to come to work.”
The Heroic Adventures of Dozer Boss Derickson
A Tale of How the Nuns Fire was stopped from burning into Sonoma
There’s a “wanted” poster floating around Glen Ellen with a picture of a man called “Dozer Boss Derickson,” allegedly guilty of “going rogue, stealing heavy equipment, destruction of personal property and plowing through roadblocks.”
He sounds like a dangerous man and, according to reputable reports, including a detailed confession from the Dozer Boss himself, the wanted poster is essentially accurate.
And yet Derickson is still walking around a free man, still has access to enormous bulldozers and is widely viewed as something of a hero.
So, what’s that about?
Nils Derickson, as he is more commonly called, does indeed have an affinity for bulldozers, although neither he, nor any other heavy equipment operators interviewed, use that term, which was coined around 1930.
The operative term these days is simply “dozer,” or alternatively “crawler,” because Caterpillar, the world’s best-known dozer dealer, calls the machines it makes “crawler tractors.”
Erickson’s dozer activities, while arguably unconventional, are nevertheless sanctioned by the state fire fighting agency for which he works as a Captain and Dozer Boss.
The charges in question relate to the impromptu requisition of a 32-ton, 21-foot-long Caterpillar D8R tractor belonging to the Nuns Canyon Quarry company, where it is usually used to move what is technically referred to as “dimension stone.”
Derickson “borrowed” the D8R to do battle with the Nuns Fire, which had erupted behind Beltane Ranch somewhere near the junction of Nuns Canyon Road and Nelligan Road.
When his brother phoned him from the family compound high up on Sonoma Mountain Road, to inform him there were flames in the Valley at Beltane Ranch, Nils was at his house in Glen Ellen. It was around 10 p.m. on Sunday, October 8.
“I threw on my boots, jumped in my truck and called Alex Benward (of the Beltane family) to ask what he needed.”
We should pause for a moment to explain something. There are seven siblings in the Derickson family (perhaps a Scandinavian tradition—all those long nights), and each of them has been at one time or another in service to the Glen Ellen Fire Department (where their mother was a dispatcher), that fire department a family in itself with multiple generations of tradition. Nils’ father Bill, had been a heavy equipment operator and mechanic whose fire fighting legacy we will encounter later on.
It’s enough to say that Nils had knowledge of Sonoma Valley you can’t get in school. And since he knew Beltane firsthand, he knew how vulnerable it was to fire. And he was there in minutes, to discover that Glen Ellen and Kenwood Fire Departments were on site, but the dozer he usually operates was already committed to the Atlas Peak fire in Napa County.
So after making contact with the quarry to confirm their dozer had lights and an available key, he went and got it. Having a dozer to fight fires requires some protocols to tie into the incident chain of command, so Derickson called Battalion chief Bob Norrbom to establish a radio ID. Fire fighting dozers have unit numbers painted on them, but the quarry dozer didn’t. So, Derickson told Norrbom, his call name would be “Dozer Boss Derickson.” And thus a legend was born.
What followed is too complicated, intricate and confusing to fuel a chronological narrative. Suffice it to say that Dozer Boss Derikson carved a swath of firebreaks all over the side of the Mayacamas foothills in a largely futile effort to get ahead of the fire. He worked his way to the old Gordenker turkey farm, where the cannabis cooperative SPARC had established a pioneering organic/biodynamic farming operation that was now at least half aromatic ashes.
Derickson says he made several stands on Gordenker ranch, trying to keep the fire off Trinity Road, and that although those lines didn’t “stick,” he was able to save a couple of structures.
Eventually, says Derickson, “I decided I needed to get ahead of this thing to keep it out of Sonoma.”
He steered the D8R down Trinity Road to Highway 12, and then set off down the highway, “walking” the dozer at maybe five miles per hour (top speed is 6.7 going forward, 8.6 in reverse) to get to the CAL FIRE station outside the Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
Along the way, according to various witnesses, Derickson was towing something like 100 feet of wire fencing and two or three gates, caught in the tracks of the dozer. When he got to the Arnold Drive intersection on 12, there was a roadblock with a police barricade that, Derickson insists, had already been knocked down. It was in his way, so he just rolled over it and kept going.
When he got to the Triangle Body Shop, just north of the CAL FIRE station, he saw fire crossing the adjacent field toward some parked cars, so he detoured to flatten the grass, thus eliminating fuel and saving the cars.
After refueling the D8R, Derickson headed up Cavedale Road and onto a parallel jeep trail in effort to reach the top of the ridge and establish a fire break. A second dozer arrived and the two operators started constructing a fire line together. Over the course of the next day they pushed the line forward, but Derickson eventually realized they didn’t have “enough resources,” the line wasn’t going to hold, and they should head back down the mountain.
Derickson told the other operator—“a contractor guy” named Louie Bonatto who had never fought a fire before—to stay with him on the 45-degree descent, which on that steep a slope is basically,” says Derickson, “a controlled fall.”
The wind had shifted and the fire had come down below the tractors. “I said, ‘Hey, we got to get out of here while we can.’ Then, 20 minutes above the fire, my tractor died. I got off and discovered a branch had knocked the fuel line off the fuel tank, and now there was fuel pouring out under the tractor.” Derickson got on the radio for immediate air support, but there were no planes available and he was stuck in the path of an approaching fire sitting in a pool of fuel.
“The fire was almost on us when the wind shifted and gave us just enough time for Louie to cut a line around both dozers.” Then they sat in their circle of safety while the fire burned around them.
“Knowing I shouldn’t be out there alone, that’s what saved me,” says Derickson. “Louis was my safeguard.”
Once the fire had passed, they took the second dozer back up the mountain to a CAL FIRE outpost, got some tools, went back to fix the damaged dozer and then got it safely off the mountain.
But in the midst of that fray, Derickson discovered that he was following the faint trace of a very old track carved by another dozer operator, apparently during the 1964 fire that burned the same footprint all the way down to Boyes Hot Springs. That track had been carved by his father in similar circumstances, and now Nils Derickson had come full circle with his father Bill, who died in 1996.
The Dozer Boss drama has many more chapters, but without doubt the most important was the strategy he helped shape and engineer to establish a fire break from Mission Highlands—the upscale and up-mountain neighborhood to the north and west of Norrbom Road—to Moon Mountain, site of a popular (now closed) Christmas tree farm Reprise Winery and the most celebrated vineyard in Sonoma Valley—Monte Rosso.
“The line actually held up there,” he says. “Without it, the fire would burned down the Agua Caliente drainage into Fetter Springs, through Michael Drive.”
Then on a Fateful Friday night the winds turned up again and fears soared the fire might flare up again on Seventh Street East, Castle Road and Lovall Valley Court.
“So we put as many tractors to work as we could, to go around structures and cut the fire off.”
A concerted ground and air effort kept the fire from entering Sonoma proper, quite possibly saving the town. Derickson says the credit falls on many people, prominently including John Benward personally, and Earl Broderick (now sole owner of the John Benward Company, who together risked numerous loaned dozers for the fire fighting effort. Credit also goes to John Serres who loaned numerous pieces of equipment, including two water tenders, one of which played a prominent role in saving Beltane Ranch.
In addition to what feels like a sense of unflappable calm around heavy machines, what gives Nils Derickson, the Dozer Boss, an edge in fighting Valley fires, is the fact that he grew up here, once worked for the John Benward Company all around the Valley, and listened to his father’s stories.
“You have to know the terrain, the geographical locations of the area where you’re fighting a fire with a dozer. That’s something that help’s me a lot.”