As fire erupted across a large property in Knightsen, Tuesday, July 16, officers from the Oakley Police Department (OPD) searching for the source of the screams they heard weren’t concerned they were operating outside their jurisdiction.
“As soon as you put on the badge, it doesn’t matter what color we’re wearing or who we work for,” said OPD Officer Tyler Horn. “You just go out and do what you need to do and ultimately make sure that people are safe and people are alive at the end of the day.”
Horn was one of several OPD officers involved in the rescue of a man who was reluctant to abandon his home and belongings in the face of a fast-moving fire. Also involved in the rescue were officers Corey Decker and Abe Velasco, Sgt. Rick Grubaugh and interim-Lt. Paul Beard.
The late-afternoon fire began at a property on the corner of Knightsen Avenue and Willow Oak Court. A man using a power grinder sent sparks into the dry grass. Windy conditions pushed the flames east toward outbuildings, vehicles and a home. In short order, the fire crossed Knightsen Avenue and burning grass threatened a second home as units from the East Contra Costa and Contra Costa County fire protection districts and Cal Fire arrived on scene.
“Me and (Sgt. Grubaugh) were there first,” said Horn. “Pretty much the entire front of the property – the house – was fully engulfed. And then a field across the street on the east side was catching fire as well. I saw smoke from downtown Oakley. That’s why I was responding. I knew it was going to be a large (fire). The properties out there are pretty big.”
Decker arrived and joined Horn, and the pair began searching the rear of the property as the fire grew, igniting the home, a large shed and a nearby tractor-trailer rig. Horn spotted a man near a travel trailer trying to extinguish spot fires with a bucket of water. The man ignored the officers’ commands to evacuate the area and the pair realized they would have to go in after him.
“He wasn’t responding to our P.A. announcements,” said Decker. “It was pretty much, ‘We have to go get this guy.’ He’s obviously not listening to us and he’s in danger. We went there to go get him and he said he didn’t want to leave. At that time is probably when we heard the first or second propane tank explode. It was like, ‘All right, it’s time to go.’”
Velasco was a few seconds behind Decker and Horn and confirmed the seriousness of the situation.
“As they were walking up to the gentleman, they were focused on getting him out, which is a good thing,” said Velasco. “I had a few seconds to look around. We had a trailer on fire next to the truck that could have been full of fuel, next to propane tanks next to the fifth wheel (trailer). We were so close that we could feel the heat of the fire. It was definitely time to go. There was no other choice than we had to get him out of there and get ourselves out of there.”
The officers, along with their subject, took cover behind a trailer as the fire grew and propane tanks continued to explode. Rather than rest there, their problems only got worse. The exhausted man was unable to continue walking and could not assist in his own rescue. The officers said he didn’t have the energy to even get on his feet — and they were all still cut off from safety by a fence topped with barbed wire.
“It wasn’t reasonable to think that we were able to get him from that point all the way to the end of the fence line,” explained Velasco. “At that point, we decided that we had to knock the fence over, which had barbed wire. From the other side, Sgt. Grubaugh helped knock the fence down. Then we had to get (the victim) up over the fence and into a car.”
Oakley Police Chief Eric Christensen said the victim was delivered to paramedics, though the victim declined any further medical assistance. It was later determined the rescued man sparked the fire by using the grinder. The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District and the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff are investigating the incident to determine if any charges will be filed against the man, who has not been named. Christensen also said he believed that the actions of the OPD officers saved the man’s life and he is planning to recognize the officers involved for heroism.
“I have so much gratitude and respect for these officers for their rescue efforts,” added Oakley Mayor Claire Alaura. “Not only were they faced with imminent danger from the encroaching fire and explosive propane tanks, they also encountered a combative and then incapacitated subject. I’m very proud of these officers’ quick thinking and actions that no doubt saved a life.”