Calif. Fire Chief Loses Home While Saving Others from Wildfire

Calif. Fire Chief Loses Home While Saving Others from Wildfire

News Oct 12, 2017

Oct. 11—When a wildfire ripped through Santa Rosa early Monday, Tom Welch made sure his family and neighbors were safe before dashing back home to see if there was any chance of defending his house from the flames.

"It was about getting people out of there," Welch said Tuesday from Chico, where he and his family were staying with in-laws. "The fire was moving, and we went house to house, kicking in doors to get people out."

Welch, who is chief of the Mill Valley Fire Department, lost his home that morning after hours of search-and-rescue and battling the blaze. But alongside Santa Rosa and Windsor firefighters, they were able to save about eight homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood.

Welch said it was about 1 a.m. when he was on a conference call with Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber and others deciding how many firefighters and other resources each Marin department could spare to join the fight against the North Bay fires.

After the call, he walked from his home on Holly Park Way about six blocks north across Hopper Avenue and saw the wind-whipped firestorm raging toward the neighborhood. He called his wife and told her get their two teenage children and flee.

She picked up his aunt from Windsor on their way to Chico, where his father-in-law lives, Welch said.

Welch immediately jumped to aid Santa Rosa police, moving door to door to evacuate people to safety.

It was around 4 a.m. when he made his way back to his house on Holly Park Way.

After realizing the flames couldn't be defeated, "I was pretty bummed," he said, but "when you're in that moment of a live fire, it goes by pretty fast... There were still homes to save; I had to move on to the next house, and then the next."

In the morning, when the smoldering ash was all that remained, Welch said the neighborhood "was completely devastated; everything was leveled."

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Although he was upset, he said his wife reminded him that they all had their health and they had the support of family and friends.

Mill Valley Mayor Jessica Sloan called him "a hero," saying that "these are the moments that show what an incredible firefighter he is."

"He was able to evacuate his own family and save the lives of his neighbors," she said. "We are very proud of him."

Welch commended Santa Rosa, Windsor and all Sonoma County first responders. He said he couldn't imagine experiencing this tragedy without the support of the fire community, the city of Mill Valley and friends and family.

Welch, who joined the Mill Valley Fire Department in 2000, has been serving as fire chief since 2015. He grew up in Redding, where he began his career with Old Shasta Fire Protection District in 1992.

The city of Mill Valley has launched a crowd-funding effort through, to support Mill Valley city staff affected by the fires. So far, they have raised more than $50,000. For more information, go to .

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.
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