Four officers with the Merced Community College District Police Department did not hesitate to raise their hands.
MCCD officers John Rhoades, Keith Reig, Tanner Greene and Leo Lopez volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way while patrolling the Bass Lake area during a bad stretch of the Creek Fire the weekend of Sept. 11-13.
“[Madera County Sheriffs] had all of their days off canceled,” said Rhoades, a Merced College alumnus and a 20-year veteran of the MCCD police force.
“They’d been working so hard. We just wanted to help them out. Not only that, but you often hear bad stories about people coming back after evacuations to find their homes had been looted. We had the chance to do something to help the community and the agency.”
Large-scale emergency operations require manpower and lots of it. When any state agency gets stretched too thin, the California Office of Emergency Services sounds the alarm and calls for volunteers.
Faced with what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has called the worst wildfire season ever recorded in the history of California, yes, the mid-September all-call for help from within Central California caught exactly no one by surprise.
Reig worked a 12-hour shift overnight Sept. 11 into Sept 12. Lopez, Greene and Rhoades did the same Sept. 12 into Sept. 13. They all worked with Madera County sheriffs patrolling an area along Road 223 and the feeder streets that led into residential areas.
They were tasked with protecting homes from potential looting, directing traffic away from the area and looking out for the residents who chose to stay home despite the mandatory evacuation order. During their shifts, the MCCD officers came as close as 3 miles to the heavily burning areas on the north side of Bass Lake.
According to Cal Fire, from when it began Sept. 4 through Sept. 19, the Creek Fire had already cut through some 248,000+ acres in the foothills of Madera and Fresno counties. The morning the MCCD crew checked out from the command post at Minarets High School in O’Neals, Rhoades said they couldn’t see across the school courtyard.
MCCD Chief of Police Matt Williams felt good knowing his officers answered the call.
“Working with other agencies makes my officers more well rounded,” Williams said.
Williams had another reason to feel proud. His family was evacuated during the Detwiler Fire that threatened the entire town of Mariposa in 2017. He said he appreciated everyone who protected his home and community during the blaze that destroyed 63 homes and nearly 82,000 acres.
“I think when [our officers] see that they are helping people in need, it makes them more empathetic,” Williams said. “[The experience] makes you a better person and that is a benefit, in my mind, to the College District.”
Reig had the most heart-stopping moment during his shift due, not to the fire, but a wayward mama bear and baby bear who had wandered down from higher elevations due to the smoke and fire. He got quite a shock en route to the restroom at midnight and saw the baby scaling a light pole and the mama nearby.
Rhoades said that was probably the most exciting their shifts got, and thank goodness for that.
“Everything went like it was supposed to go,” he said. “It’s good when nothing goes wrong on a shift. We were such a small part of the team. I do have to say, Madera County does an excellent job putting on those operations. We appreciated being there.”