Firefighting family battled Calif.'s largest blaze together
Gold Ridge volunteer firefighters Tonia and Vail Bello were among hundreds of firefighters who responded during the initial hours of the Tubbs fire
By Randi Rossman
The Press Democrat
GOLD RIDGE, Calif. — Gold Ridge volunteer firefighters Tonia and Vail Bello and their son and daughter were in Hollister last year for an early October weekend and asleep when the flurry of texts and pages began.
Are you coming? firefighters and friends asked. When can you be here?
They woke their kids, gathered the dog, climbed into the family SUV and sped north on Highway 101. Soon after midnight they were behind a fleet of Bay Area emergency vehicles racing north, shortening the typically three-hour drive. At the Richmond Bridge, they smelled smoke. An ominous glow loomed in the northern sky.
By 3 a.m., they’d dropped off 14-year-old daughter Rylee and the family dog at their Sebastopol-area home, gone to the firehouse with their son Logan, then an Analy High School senior, and met up with veteran volunteer Capt. Tony Voight and new volunteer firefighter Jake Adams.
They donned their yellow fire turnouts, clambered into a Gold Ridge water tender and headed for Santa Rosa.
The five were among hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement officers and others who responded during the initial hours of the firestorm late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9, dashing toward multiple fires spanning ridgelines and valleys from Santa Rosa to Napa County and beyond, in what would become the most destructive siege of wildfire in California history.
They were determined warriors in the midst of the maelstrom. Around them, homes exploded, businesses crumbled and vehicles melted away. The crew, which included two novices, were witnesses to unfathomable and overwhelming damage.
Logan worked 20 hours. The others kept going for nearly two days.
“At the moment you couldn’t get emotional,” said Tonia Bello. “The aftermath was very emotional.”
A year later, relaxing in their Bloomfield ranch-style home, the Bello family has attained an unsettled peace in the wake of their brave stand against the Tubbs fire.
They moved that night from one crux of flames to another: The Orchard mobile home park, where 70 homes burned; later, Fountaingrove, where more than 1,500 homes were lost; and the Luther Burbank Center, which sustained major damage.
Dreadful memories remain vivid for each family member.
“It was like a combination of excitement, sorrow and terror,” Logan said. “On the outside, I was keeping my cool.” Inside, he recalled thinking, “Oh my God. This is so, so bad.”
This summer, he was assigned to the state’s largest-ever wildland blaze, the 410,000-acre Ranch fire in Mendocino County. He’s working toward a career in firefighting and continues to volunteer while studying at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Vail Bello, a retired law enforcement officer, remembers the endless, rapid sequence of propane-tank explosions — the white flash followed by the loud bang — and his fear that each meant someone in a home had died. But there also is the pride he felt for his wife and son, plus Voight and Adams, and their ability to push through exhaustion in the face of the inferno.
Tonia finds herself wishing they could have done more during their two-day trial. Mostly she thinks about Orchard, the mobile home park where many seniors lived.
She’s returned to the Piner Road neighborhood half a dozen times seeking to understand where they worked that night and what they’d accomplished. On one trip, she and her husband took a rose bush to the first rebuilt home. Her daughter accompanied her on another visit to learn where her family had been that night.
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