On Aug. 19, before wildfires destroyed entire communities in Oregon and cast a pall of smoke over wide swaths of the country, California ordered the residents of Bonny Doon, a mountain community north of Santa Cruz, to evacuate.
The CZU Lightning Complex Fires, today the state’s second most destructive wildfire on record, were spreading rapidly through their region. But Bonny Doon local and tech ethics researcher Jacob Metcalf doubted authorities would end up sending enough people to save his and his neighbors’ homes.
He wasn’t completely off base. Thanks to the pandemic, California was undermanned heading into what’s turned out to be its worst fire year on record, and officials have been faced with difficult choices about how and when to deploy limited property- and life-saving resources. Locals say the official presence in their area was minimal through the worst of the fires.
So very early the next morning, Metcalf recalled, he and a friend snuck past the not-yet-manned sheriff’s barricade at the edge of the evacuation zone, found flames creeping up just feet away from his home, and got to dousing them—and digging ditches.
Metcalf wasn’t alone. As The East-Bay Times reported, anywhere from 50 to 200 locals either ignored the evacuation order or slipped back in past the barricades to defend homes they believed the government had abandoned, most using only supplies from local hardware stores. Some, like Metcalf, left once they’d safeguarded their homes. But dozens stayed through the fires, forming ad hoc amateur firefighter brigades.
“Bonny Doon would be a moonscape, to be repopulated by techies looking for cheap land in two years, if it weren’t for locals,” Metcalf told The Daily Beast.
Communities often form informal, untrained fire crews when they feel authorities have abandoned them. Over the past few weeks, several have popped up in towns near Bonny Doon, as well as in Napa County, California, and Molalla, Oregon. Many fire control experts understand their motives, even if they don’t approve of their efforts.
But a few outsiders occasionally slip into crews in communities they don’t live near—like Matt Hahn, an electrician who’d worked a stint on a fire crew while in prison earlier in his life. Natalia Flechsig of Deerhaven Farm, in Bonny Doon, recalled that Hahn basically just showed up one day, and that they were at first uncertain of who he was or why he was there. (Flechsig noted that he turned out to be “a godsend” who “helped defend the property when the fire eventually made it to the farm.”)
Still, even self-styled rogues seeking to protect their homes can be turned off by or downright skeptical of unknown outsiders following the flames.
Wildfire suppression experts tell The Daily Beast that every time a major wave of fires breaks out, governments and private companies alike get a surge of what Thomas Kyle-Milward of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources called “generic but generous, able-bodied male here interested in doing my part” would-be volunteers. Like the locals who fight fires in their own communities, many of these people do not have active firefighting certifications, or even relevant training. Some, like Elijah Tasker, a Californian who’s currently trying to get into nursing school and whose family lost their home in a wildfire when he was a kid, seem motivated by a pure desire to help people avoid pain they’ve known.
“I grew up seeing everyone around me lose their things to fire,” he told The Daily Beast. “I keep seeing the state light on fire. I’m just very eager to go help people… I felt bad watching people scramble and not being able to help out.”
Others appear to be driven more by a machismo sense of duty or desire for adventure and challenge.
Whatever their motives, official crews—in California at least—won’t take last-minute or untrained recruits even in the depths of a horrific fire season. And for some, that’s that.
For others, it’s just a call to seek more informal outlets.
Cuyler Ruskin, a filmmaker who grew up near Bonny Doon but now lives in Reno, Nevada, said that after hearing about the growing CZU fires, he “got in [his] truck and did 90 miles per hour straight there” to join an informal crew. Hahn felt so compelled to act that he advertised his services on social media until he heard about Bonny Doon and raced down from San Jose.
Fire officials don’t want anyone—local or otherwise—outside sanctioned outfits in danger zones, as they worry amateurs will blunder about, getting in pros’ ways or forcing them to divert resources to save locals who get out of their depth. They recently stressed this point after far-right vigilante groups started doing unsanctioned animal rescues in hard-hit areas near San Diego. That messaging convinced Tasker, at least, that he shouldn’t go to Bonny Doon after he briefly flirted with the idea.
Bonny Doon locals say calls from on high for them to leave everything to the authorities—to not go rogue—are bullshit. They claim that many of their crews include retired wildfire pros who guide them, that they are highly organized and respectful of official crews when they do come through, and that their knowledge of unmapped backroads and local conditions makes them an asset rather than a hindrance to trained pros.
“You can do a lot with a pool, a pump, and a couple hundred feet of hose,” Ruskin said.
None of them have needed rescue, they say. “Actual firefighters on the ground are immensely grateful to the locals,” Metcalf told The Daily Beast. (The Daily Beast reached out to local fire authorities but had not heard back as of publication.)
But these gung ho locals are often dubious of outsiders coming in to help them, save those like Ruskin who have connections to and know the area. They doubt well-meaning people like Hahn and Tasker—neither of whom has been accused of wrongdoing—will know how to navigate the unfamiliar region or slip into already tight-knit groups.
Some also feel like they have to keep a wary eye on outsiders, fearing looters masquerading as volunteers.
“People follow evacuations and loot, but have the guise of volunteering,” Mike Dunn, who helped to organize ad hoc fire control efforts around his family’s vineyard in Napa County, told The Daily Beast.
So when people reach out, locals in hard-hit areas often ask for supplies or just support instead of spare hands.
Granted, one Bonny Doon local who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal did tell The Daily Beast that his crew considered taking their show on the road as helpers to a community hours away—until they realized official resources were mobilizing there. Still, he said, they only considered doing so because the crew had connections in the area.
But Ruskin’s eager to try to help out beyond his home region. He’s currently hoping to get the chance to go help friends who live near Mendocino. And despite fire experts’ warnings that amateurs almost always do more harm than good, he dreams of a world where more people are willing to help others in times of crisis like this.
“Everyone’s so scared of the word liability. Everyone’s so scared of everyone. Everyone’s scared to run in and help,” he lamented to The Daily Beast. “I believe that we should go back to living in a world where people react and work from their hearts.”