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California Wildfire Doesn't Spare The Home Of A Veteran Firefighter


Devastation in California from deadly wildfires is historic. So far this year, thousands of wildfires have devoured more than a million and a half acres, an area more than three times larger than Los Angeles, where I am. The LNU Lightning Complex fire is now the second largest in the state's history. And the flames did not spare Andy Pestana's home.

He's a 23-year veteran with the South San Francisco Fire Department. He spent decades saving other people's homes. Pestana lost everything, as he put it last Wednesday - his farm, his home, many of his animals. But he and his wife are safe. And he and his wife, Sara Hawkins, join me on the line from winter's California, about an hour northeast of San Francisco. Thank you both for taking some time for us. I can't imagine what you've been through.

SARAH HAWKINS: Yeah. You're welcome.

ANDY PESTANA: Thank you for having us.

GREENE: Well, Andy, I want to start with you. I mean, as I said, you've been a firefighter for 23 years. Your own property now hard hit by this fire. Just talk to me about this fire. Have you ever battled anything like it?

PESTANA: I have not. And not many people can say that they've battled in fires or been in fires or experienced fires of such size and magnitude. And the speed that this moved seemed unprecedented.

GREENE: Well, yeah. I mean, talk to me. Andy, you were at home asleep and off duty when it came to your property? I mean, can you take me to the moment when you realized that it was this out of control?

PESTANA: We actually received multiple phone calls back-to-back from our neighbor. Then they lost everything also. But they called us, woke us up and said, hey. We've been given notification from their son, who is a local firefighter, that it's bad. Get up. I went outside and did a quick assessment of what I could see. And I could see the ridgeline, too, behind us all aglow. And we're talking miles and miles of - miles from my right to my left as I looked out the back door. I hurried in and woke up Sarah. We quickly got dressed, threw a few things in bags, made sure we had identification with us and a little bit of money and made sure the cars were pointed out.

I then went out to kind of assess what was going on based on my training and years of service saying, what am I seeing? And I've never seen a fire front of that size coming towards us. We've had fires back there in the past. Then it seemed like everything changed. The winds picked up. It turned 90 degrees on us. Instead of coming out of the west, it came out of the north. And Sarah had joined me to kind of just see what was going on.

And by that time, we turned around and realized there was a flaming front coming behind us from our north. And it was going to flank our exit. We ran for the cars and we got out of there, with flames close enough that I had to get in on the passenger's side of the truck instead of the driver's side because there was too much fire on that side of the car to get in. And we got out. It just came so quick.

GREENE: Wow. I'm so relieved that you two are safe. Sarah, what was going through your mind? I mean, did you feel like you were going to get out of there somehow?

HAWKINS: Well, it was pure adrenaline. When we had gone out to assess where the flames were coming from and where the fire was coming and all of a sudden just hear this roar from the north, it was kind of shocking that it was coming so fast and that the flames were as high as they were. They should not have been that high. And it was like, we got to go. And I ran in the house and grabbed the dog and just - I had to literally throw her into the car because she was so panicked at the flames and just get out.

GREENE: Have you been able to assess what you've lost and what condition the property is in?

HAWKINS: We've lost everything. But our barn, all of our farming equipment, our greenhouse, the house. The house is just a six-inch layer of crumbled drywall and shattered tile. And we lost all of our junior does that we were retaining. And...

GREENE: These are the goats you're talking about. I mean, you're a prized breeder...


GREENE: ...We should say. Sarah, what did those goats mean to you?

HAWKINS: You know, I've worked really hard on my breeding program. And every year, we have babies. And I bottle-feed all of them so that they'll be friendly. And I know all of them. I know all of their names. I delivered all of them. They're - it's...

GREENE: It's not just a place, obviously, Sarah. This is your livelihood and your business. And already, we were in a pandemic and a faltering economy. I mean, have you even begun to think about how you move forward and what's next now?

HAWKINS: Just barely. You spend an hour or two just looking through shirts at a donation place and, like, shoes and supplies. We don't - you know, we have a couple of T-shirts. And we have a couple of pairs of shorts. There's so much to do just regarding the house burning down and trying to figure out next steps because there's not really much of a handbook on what to expect when your house is burned down.

GREENE: Where are the two of you now? I mean, I take it you're safe now.

HAWKINS: Yeah. We're currently staying with a friend, one of my best friends. People ask if we're safe. And we're like, we are safe now, you know? And we do have a place to stay for now. But we can't stay here for six months.

GREENE: Andy, are you going to go back in to fight these fires again soon? Or are you going to get some time away to deal with what's happened here?

PESTANA: My department was gracious enough to extend as much time as I needed. I was able to take vacation for the immediate tour after it happened. But, yes, I will be going back to work soon enough and will be there for the public as a protector. I've been - 22 years in the fire department, another eight years before that on the ambulances. So I've been serving the public for over 31 years. And I'll continue until retirement sometime in the near future.

GREENE: Well, Andy Pestana and Sarah Hawkins, I'm just glad you two are together and safe. And, you know, we'll be thinking about you. Thank you.

HAWKINS: Thank you.

PESTANA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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