For Napa Volunteer Firefighters, Victory, Devastation, and a Marriage Proposal

Brandon North and Becca Brown-Dehner grieve the loss of their two family homes at Spanish Flat Mobile Villa in Napa County, Calif.  (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

Brandon North stepped onto a concrete slab and kicked up a warped piece of metal with the toe of his boot. A cloud of ash settled into the 7-year-old imprint of his younger brother’s tiny feet etched into a crumbling concrete walkway.

About a stone’s throw away, Becca Brown-Dehner stepped over a twisted bird cage on her family’s property. “This was my twin brother's room but now that’s all gone,” she said, pointing at a blackened bed frame.

These were the remains of their childhood homes, destroyed on Aug. 18 when the Hennessy Fire flattened the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa, the small Napa County community where North and Brown-Dehner grew up.

As Brown-Dehner surveyed a melted motorcycle, shriveled antiques and seared appliances, the 23-year-old's eyes filmed over, and her lower lip quivered. North tenderly embraced her. The couple have been dating since high school. For many years, their families not only lived next door to each other, they shared countless game nights, dinner parties and camping trips.

The night of the fire, Brandon and Becca were both on duty as volunteer firefighters.

They don’t have to answer every emergency page, but North, a stalky 25-year-old, makes a habit of it.

“I feel obligated,” he said. “If you're able to go, you should go. Whether it’s small or big to whoever called, it’s the worst day of their life.”

More than two-thirds of the nation's firefighters are volunteers, according to surveys taken by the National Fire Protection Association. These men and women, most of whom hold down day jobs while also responding to emergencies in their local communities, will be more and more critical as climate change sparks an increasing number of megafires across the West. Early into fire season, fires have scorched a record-breaking 3.1 million acres, or 4,844 square miles, a huge percentage burning over the course of just three weeks.

“We need more resources because the fires are bigger, and we have to be able to draw on all the varying levels of the fire service to help put these fires out as quickly as possible,” said Napa County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea.

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Neighborhood Gone

Becca and Brandon moved in together a few years ago when they were hired to run Putah Canyon Campground on Lake Berryessa, about 10 minutes up the road from their childhood homes.

A few weeks ago, they were asleep in their small, white trailer when a lightning storm hit, and they scurried out of bed to take video of the electric sky.

Brandon North and Becca Brown-Dehner stand in the doorway of a former laundry room destroyed by the Hennessy wildfire. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

But soon their fire radios started crackling as blazes ignited across the wine country. They jumped into their truck and sped to the fire station. By the afternoon, small grass fires had erupted into infernos, with walls of flame a hundred feet high sweeping over the ridges.

“I didn't realize how scared I was going to be,” Brown-Dehner said. Before then, she’d only answered medical emergency calls. But now she and her boyfriend were both tasked with helping to contain the fires.

The next day, when the Spanish Fire snaked toward the campground they call home, the duo spent all day and night cutting back brush and tree limbs, helping to protect the area. At dawn they briefly celebrated.

“I was excited because I like fighting fire,” said North. “But then when it started to get into housing areas, the excitement went away and anger set in.”

One of those areas was Spanish Flat Mobile Villa, where their families still lived. When Brown-Dehner overheard the police scanner call for an evacuation at the site, her heart leapt. North raced to the neighborhood to help.

“It was hard seeing this place burning down and just trying to do my job at the same time,” he said. “When I came here, everything was fully engulfed.”

As the fire incinerated homes, he helped the few remaining residents — people he’d known his whole life — flee.

Afterward, North climbed into his truck and called Brown-Dehner to tell her their old neighborhood was gone.

“My heart broke,” Becca said. “I just felt devastated and hopeless. I didn't know what to do.”

She was sobbing hysterically when North returned. He knelt down and took her hand, while fingering a princess-cut diamond ring in his pocket. He had grabbed it earlier to make sure it wouldn't burn.

He hadn't planned on popping the question that day, but he was desperate to cheer up his girlfriend.

And so much devastation had put their love in perspective.

“Finally he asked me to marry him!” Brown-Dehner rejoiced, recalling the proposal and showing off the sparkling ring.

The glee of that moment didn't last long, though. The next morning, the newly engaged couple jumped right back into action, continuing to battle the fire for two solid weeks. The first seven days, North says, he slept about eight hours total. More conflagrations closed in, eventually merging into the LNU complex fire, which has torched more than 360,000 acres and is still burning.

Now the fiancees are helping their families resettle outside of California. Brown-Dehner would love to leave, too. But North shakes his head. The wine country is not only home, it’s where he’s needed.

“I guess a callous way of saying it is, “This where the action is. So …” His voice trailed off. “It's where I want to be.”

They hope to celebrate their engagement before the next wildfire strikes.