Sometimes, firefighters have to do things other than battling blazes, including delivering bad news. In one Fresno County mountain town, the fire chief is uniquely suited to doing just that.
For Chris Donnelly, Chief of the Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department, bad news this week means telling homeowners their cabins burned down in the Creek Fire. Though the damage is likely extensive, he’s so far had to make calls about five homes, including one that had been in a particular family for a century. “So many of these families, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers built them, hauled up wood and cobbled the thing together,” he says. “That's what's so hard, is you know there are these connections. Many cabins there have been passed down, and they’re just memory after memory.”
Talking to people comes naturally to Donnelly. Since Huntington Lake is mostly a summer destination, he spends nine months a year as a Christian Brother at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. Akin to a monk, he’s in the past been a teacher and camp director, and today he’s the college’s facilities manager, although COVID-19 has disrupted the construction projects he had been working on. “It’s fun, I just do all kinds of stuff,” he says.
Donnelly came to know Huntington Lake while working at a Christian camp there decades ago. In the late 90s, with some firefighting experience and a knack for mechanics, he and another Brother ended up reviving what was at that time an ailing fire department. “He and I were the team,” he says. “I got my EMT the next year, and then realized we didn’t know what we were doing, and then went to the academy, started getting certified, doing it right.”
Chief Donnelly, also known as Brother Chris, says what attracts him to both jobs is the idea of service, even when it means having a difficult conversation. “I don't like it, but I really care about people so that makes it a little bit easier,” he says. “Knowing you bring closure in a way that maybe somebody else couldn't, it makes me do the next one.”
When Donnelly woke up on Saturday and saw the wind fanning the flames in Big Creek on the mountainsides below Huntington Lake, he says he knew the fire was coming. “We had towering cumulus from smoke above 50,000 feet and anvil shaped clouds. We were witnessing lightning and thunder created by the fire,” he says. “It’s scary.”
So after issuing evacuation orders throughout the town and its campgrounds using his fire engine’s PA system, Donnelly decided to monitor the Creek Fire away from the front lines, commuting every few days from his home in the Bay Area to the mountains to serve as a liaison to the agencies fighting the fire. He told his 16 volunteer firefighters to stand down to let state and federal agencies take the reins. “They fight fire every day, and we fight three or four fires a year,” he says. “It's less scary to know you have a big team behind you and that we don't have to be the big ones that save the place.”