It was a long day for Michael Andraychak. After commuting from the East Bay in the morning’s wee hours to check in with the San Francisco Police Department’s operations center, the sergeant drove north last Thursday with a cadre of colleagues. Marin County was relatively clear. Then they approached their destination: Sonoma County.

“As you got close to the outskirts of Santa Rosa — probably just north of Rohnert Park — you can begin to really smell the smoky smell,” Andraychak said. “The skies were darker with the overhang of the clouds and the smoke.”

At the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office, he and his fellow officers checked in, were briefed by the watch commander and a platoon of officers finishing their own shift, finalized their assignments, and deployed into one of the most deadly and destructive wildfire events in California history.

“The thing you walk away with is the sheer enormity of the devastation,” said Andraychak. “Speaking to firefighters we encountered throughout the day, they talked about it being just like a blowtorch.”

The SFPD is one of dozens of law-enforcement, firefighting and medical agencies across the western United States that responded to the fires that burned their way through the state’s iconic wine country. Each 12-hour shift features 30 to 40 San Francisco cops enforcing road closures, patrolling for looters and keeping an eye out for new flames.

An SFPD officer discovers an injured cat while patrolling in Sonoma County. Sending the cat to the vet was one of many animal-related tasks San Francisco cops tended to. Photo courtesy SFPD

By Thursday, several wildfires had charred some 150,000 acres in the Sonoma and Napa areas, destroyed thousands of structures and killed 42 people, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The worst of the blazes — the Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires — have been mostly contained.

Andraychak described an apocalyptic scene in Santa Rosa, which bore the brunt of the destruction. He recalled patrolling neighborhoods where houses on one side of the street stood unscathed while those on the other side were burned to the ground.  

Andraychak said officers found themselves with myriad tasks amid the havoc. At the behest of one woman, a set of officers drove her trailer up to her property, loaded up her mules and hauled them back down to her. Another unit got a call to deliver a trailer-load of hay to a large animal-rescue facility.

“We had some officers find a couple of cats, got them to veterinary care,” Andraychak said.

Currently, SFPD personnel are asked to stick around through early Monday morning. The first cops to rush north at the fires’ outset were on duty. But, “that first morning, when word went out that we were sending mutual aid, we had a lot of officers who were on their days off volunteering to come in and work,” Andraychak said. 

“We just had to tell those folks, ‘Okay, for today, do not self-deploy. If you’re up in the area, take care of your family. If you’re not in the area and you want to help, give us some time to work out a schedule.’”

The department is still tabulating the bill for everything, from officers’ overtime pay to the fuel needed to drive them up there, but it said those costs will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

At the behest of one woman who lost her home, cops took her trailer up to her property and hauled her two mules back down. Photo courtesy SFPD.

First responders weren’t the only groups mobilized by the disaster. Andraychak recalled watching the very residents affected by the fires donate money, bring food to shelters, and round up everything from toothbrushes to pet food to baby supplies. Officers routinely encountered locals asking how they could pitch in.

“It’s like, ‘No, it’s not supposed to work that way, right? We’re here to help you guys,’” Andraychak said. “I think that’s really cool. That touched me.”

Even as firefighters prepare to finish off the blazes, the road to recovery for those civilian volunteers and their neighbors will be a long one.

“Those folks have a long haul ahead of them,” he said. “It’s going to be a long process before they can start rebuilding and trying to get back to some level of normalcy.”