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.