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In Focus

Author: Karen Hart
December, 2017 Issue

 

When Troy and Connie Newton moved into their new home on Viewpointe Circle a year-and-a-half ago with their young son, Ryder, they knew right away they were settling into a special place. The neighbors dropped by with gifts and cards, and they were invited to monthly gatherings. “This is a neighborhood that looks out for each other,” says Troy, a detective and member of the SWAT team with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

On October 9, looking out for each other took on new meaning. Troy returned home from a SWAT retreat at midnight, exhausted. “I’d been up 24 hours. The winds were picking up and I could smell smoke.” He immediately went on alert. Connie and Ryder were sleeping, but Troy left the house, running up the main street to investigate. “The wind was blowing. Tree branches were hitting me, and I could see the skyline aglow. The fire was coming both North and East. I knew it wouldn’t take long.” He went home and woke Connie and told her to pack and wake their son, then called his dispatcher to let him know he’d start evacuating the area.

By 1 a.m., Troy was knocking on doors on Viewpoint, a Q-shaped street with 31 houses. “A lot didn’t answer,” he recalls. But Troy persisted, sometimes returning two or three times, then moving on to other homes in the area. Another neighbor, Greg Guilfoil, also pitched in, and focused on alerting senior neighbors. By 3 a.m., everyone was evacuated, except for Steve Roche, a retired San Francisco firefighter who opted to stay. Troy and his family evacuated, driving south until they found a hotel with a vacancy in San Francisco. They checked in at 5 a.m., and tried to sleep. Later at 7:30, Connie showed Troy a photo on her cell. One neighbor’s house had burned to the ground, the others remained standing, but the fire was active. Troy left his family, returning to Santa Rosa. “I got in my car, turned on the sirens. Steve was there alone,” he recalls.

Once he arrived home, Troy set up an ice chest and snacks for the firefighters still working. He met with Roche, and the two quickly assessed the situation and devised a strategy, then separated and went to work, dousing fires and glowing embers on the underside of decks and back fences, and cutting trees to thwart the fire. Meanwhile, Troy’s front yard became mission control. Firefighters stopped on his lawn to wash their eyes, pop blisters on their feet, and rest on the grass.

Gradually, in those early days other neighbors returned: Christian Espana; Danny Cong; Laura and Earik Beann and their dog, Oscar; RJ Cedano; Michael Haiman and Greg Guilfoil. “Other neighbors took turns bringing in food, water, batteries for flashlights, eye drops and ChapStick. We grew to [a team of] nine. They dubbed themselves “Pointe Patrol” and had two threads going—‘#viewpointestrong’ and ‘Pointe Patrol.’ We were operating on little sleep, Troy recalls, and the smoke was giving us headaches.  “But we pulled together and words of encouragement poured in our daily text threads. It kept morale high despite being physically tired and battered.”

As fires continued to sweep the area, fire trucks were limited. For two days, Pointe Patrol kept watch, working in shifts to put out fires and keep looters out. Cong and Cedano’s home was equipped with two generators and a grill, the brigade called it “Viewpointe Café” and that’s where the group met each day for meals.

“On day four, we thought we were over the hump,” says Troy. “We were exhausted. We had blisters on our feet, one man sprained an ankle, some had poison oak. We were drinking beer and celebrating.” In the midst of their celebration, they smelled smoke coming from the apartment complex across the street—The Boulders. “Fire was spreading under the mulch and erupted into spot fires. At midnight, we realized we had a big problem.” For the next three days, the men put out spot fires, using hoses and 10-gallon buckets, which they kept filled on a truck, and accessing the fire hydrants and extinguishers at the complex. By the weekend, the police and fire trucks returned. “We didn’t feel so alone.”

Twelve days after the worst wildfire in California history, Troy hung an American flag from two redwood trees that flank the entrance to their street with the help of a fire truck. In keeping with the standards of respect, the flag is lit at night with a streetlamp and the stars point to the north. On Day 15, as neighbors returned, they found the flag, blowing gently with the breeze. But the return was bittersweet—three homes had burned to the ground.

In the aftermath, Troy and the team shrug off accolades for their efforts. This is a neighborhood that watches out for each other. “This story started way before the fire,” Troy says. “The roots go way back.”  But ask the team if there was anything positive to come from the experience, and their response is unanimous: “Seeing people come together to support the cause 100 percent,” says Troy, speaking for the group. They’re also grateful to all first responders and the generous donations given to them during the experience from Gardner’s Aid, Russian River Brewing Company, Tony’s Toys & Truck—Used Cars and Authentic Tote+Able. As for Troy, the experience was positive from a professional standpoint, too. “It’s been a terrible time for cops,” he says. “It’s gratifying to see the community support law enforcement again.”

 

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