‘You are now entering a new family’: The journey to become Sonoma County’s newest firefighters

Seventeen recruits just earned their badges at the new Sonoma County Fire District. Veteran firefighters say it is the largest single hiring in anyone’s memory. Follow their path to the fire line, in photos and words.|

Seventeen yellow firefighters’ helmets lined the stage, one awaiting each graduate.

“You are now entering a new family,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine told the recruits, the first group to graduate from a training program to staff the county’s newest fire agency.

The 17 new firefighters form the backbone of the fire district, an agency molded out of four separate fire districts serving a 175-square-mile area that surrounds Santa Rosa. They comprise one-third of the personnel in the new district, the second-largest fire agency in the county.

Veteran firefighters say it is the largest single hiring in anyone’s memory and likely unprecedented in the history of Sonoma County firefighting.

“It’s been a long time coming, an exciting time in our journey,” said Matt Gustafson, deputy chief of the Sonoma County Fire District.

Heine, formerly Novato’s fire chief, began recruiting in February, two months before the district’s creation in early April. A nationwide listing for new firefighters drew 144 applicants, a group that was narrowed down through testing, interviews and background checks to 17 men and one woman.

They became Recruit Firefighter Academy Class 19-1, enrolling in a six-week program that culminated with the June  29 graduation ceremony at Spring Hills Community Church. The lone woman dropped out to take a job with the Napa city fire department.

The 17 graduates range in age from 22 to 45. All had previous fire service experience as volunteers or seasonal firefighters, and all but one is from Sonoma County.

Some changed careers, switching from vocations as varied as school teacher and auto mechanic.

“They straight brought their A games,” Capt. Mike Stornetta, the academy coordinator, told the crowd of family and friends gathered at the graduation ceremony.

The physical training that started each day of the academy was so strenuous that one recruit lost nine pounds in the first week. There was a 25-question test each morning, with an 85% minimum passing score. Andrew Keefer stunned the instructors with a 99.8% overall grade, missing only one question.

Tim Rohrer of Auburn, the only recruit from outside Sonoma County, got married the first weekend of the academy and “got to spend his honeymoon with 16 dudes,” Lance Munselle, the recruit class speaker, said during the ceremony.

During their 18-month probationary period in district fire stations, where they will work 48-hour shifts with the next ?96 hours off, the new men will be known as “probies” and assigned the most menial chores, Stornetta said. They must prove their mettle cleaning a toilet before they can drive a fire engine, he told the graduates.

But the men have already bonded as a team.

During a routine inspection of the recruits’ gear one morning, Stornetta discovered that class leader Alex Ciudad-Real did not have his rope, used to practice tying knots.

The oversight is typically punished with a remediation point. Stornetta couldn’t believe his top recruit had fallen short - until he noticed the next man was also without rope. And the next. And every other man in the class.

Stornetta’s dismay turned to delight.

All 16 men had fallen in line behind one of their own. It was “exactly what we are looking for in the fire service,” Stornetta told the audience, noting that the academy set the foundation for the fire district’s culture.

Asked in an interview days later what happened that morning, Munselle said, with an absolutely straight face: “We all forgot our ropes.”

The 17 graduates will most likely be future leaders - captains, battalion chiefs and possibly fire chief - over their decades-long careers, Heine predicted.

“We got the best of the best,” he said.

Here are some of their stories:


Lance Munselle » ?Geyseruerneville


When fire departments are hiring, prospective applicants visit stations and, in keeping with tradition, bring food for the crew, typically filling the refrigerator with ice cream and other desserts.

Lance Munselle of Geyserville made the rounds at Windsor and Rincon Valley district fire stations about seven months ago with bacon in hand, immediately setting himself apart from the crowd.

It probably wasn’t the decisive factor, but Munselle, 37, started work two weeks ago July 1 as a probationary firefighter, one of 17 men hired by the Sonoma County Fire District.

“That was awesome,” said Capt. Cullen Ramos, who was impressed by Munselle’s culinary choice. At firehouse meals, bacon is “something we all really enjoy,” he said.

Munselle, who earned a master’s degree in kinesiology and a teaching credential in college, had been teaching school for 10  years, the last five at Healdsburg High School, where he had graduated in 2000.

An Alexander Valley native whose father and oldest brother grow wine grapes, Munselle was looking for a career change. “I never thought I was going to teach forever,” he said.

His brother-in-law, Matt Dixon, a Sacramento firefighter-paramedic, told Munselle that his profession would be a good fit.

“Every firefighter I know talks about the camaraderie of the firehouse,” Munselle said, and the culture of teamwork and service was appealing. He signed up as an unpaid reserve with the Healdsburg Fire Department in 2017 and completed the Santa Rosa Junior College Firefighter Academy last year.

As designated class speaker on graduation day for the new district’s first recruit academy, Munselle recalled the lighter moments of their six-week training program - “our lunches were epic” - before turning serious: “To my mates, I can only say, have trust, be humble and keep working hard.”

By 1 p.m. on July  1, his first day on duty, Munselle had already been on three medical aid calls from the Sonoma County Fire District’s headquarters station on Old Redwood Highway in East Windsor.

“These are the people who are going to be my fire family,” he said. “They’ll be in my life for a long time.”

The firehouse schedule - 48 hours on duty followed by 96 hours off - also affords him time with his daughters, Maysen, 8, and Camryn, 5, who attend Alexander Valley Elementary School, which he also attended.

Munselle was a stay-at-home dad for three years while his wife, Amy, a former Navy dentist, served in Washington state. She now has her own practice in Healdsburg.

“I just feel so incredibly lucky to have it all come together,” he said.


Tony and Manny Gomez » ?Santa Rosa

Brothers Tony and Manny Gomez have long been close. They were often confused with one another until Tony, the elder by five years, shaved his head.

Born and raised by immigrant parents who settled in Santa Rosa in 1976, both worked in the family-owned restaurant, which is now closed, and graduated from Santa Rosa High School.

Misfortunes added to their bond. Their parents divorced in 1999 and their mother, Maria Curiel, and sister, Eliana Moreno, moved to Arizona, while their father continued to operate the family restaurant, Mi Rancho on Petaluma Hill Road.

In 2004, their father died suddenly from a brain aneurysm at age 46. Tony became Manny’s legal guardian and both enrolled in an automotive technical school in Glendale, Arizona, near their mother’s home.

Three years later, the brothers returned to Santa Rosa and both got jobs as service technicians at a BMW dealership.

In June, Tony, 38, and Manny, 33, changed course dramatically, donning dark blue firefighters’ uniforms for their induction among the 17 new members of the Sonoma County Fire District.

“We won the lotto,” Tony Gomez said. “You get to help people and you get to work with people who make you a better person.”

“It doesn’t feel like a job, that’s for sure,” Manny Gomez said.

Such a switch had never crossed their minds until Tony Gomez and his wife, Kendra, bought a home west of Cotati from a retired Santa Rosa firefighter who recommended his profession.

Tony Gomez arranged a visit to the Gold Ridge Fire District’s Hessel Road station in 2015 and wound up lending his automotive mechanic skills to a rescue drill that involved cutting open a wrecked car.

The brothers are both hot rod enthusiasts: Manny owns a 1963 Chevy Nova powered by a 750-horsepower engine; Tony a 550-horsepower 1969 Camaro that cranks out another 300 horsepower burning nitrous oxide.

Tony Gomez became a Gold Ridge volunteer, completed the Santa Rosa Junior College Firefighters Academy in 2017 and became an apprentice firefighter with the former Windsor Fire District.

Manny Gomez, meanwhile, had completed the SRJC academy and volunteered with the former Rincon Valley Fire District. Both brothers secured jobs with the new district that absorbed the Windsor, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Mountain fire agencies.

The brothers were both involved with the Tubbs fire in October 2017, with Manny on a Rincon Valley engine that responded to an unrelated fire in downtown Santa Rosa and then spendingt the night defending a house near Spring Lake Park.

On Oct. 9, his engine patrolled Fountaingrove looking for flare-ups in the devastated area.

Tony Gomez headed for the Gold Ridge station but found it empty. Accompanied by his wife, Gomez drove their pickup truck and horse trailer around the fire area collecting horses, sheep, goats, cows and a couple of llamas they took to the county fairgrounds.

As part of a strike team dispatched from Windsor to the Camp fire last November in Butte County, Tony Gomez’s mechanical prowess paid off again as he restarted a Windsor water tender that had stalled far from town.

Now part of the same fire family, the siblings find life much like it was in their childhood, when Manny always wanted to pal along with his older brother and their father insisted on it.

“Dad made sure we were looking to help each other,” Manny Gomez said.


Tom Krausmann » ?Cazadero

Tom Krausmann carries vivid childhood memories of firefighting in the wildlands around his home in Cazadero.

He often rode with his father, Steve Krausmann, chief of the rural community’s all-volunteer fire department, on fire and emergency calls. “I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said, recalling the lights and sirens he saw and heard from the safety of his father’s truck.

“Ever since I can remember I was set on being a firefighter,” Krausmann said.

The heat and the horror of the Tubbs firestorm, which he experienced as a crew member on a Cal Fire engine in 2017, did nothing to change that.

Two weeks ago, Krausmann, 25, started work as one of the 17 new firefighters with the Sonoma County Fire District.

Krausmann, a wrestler and football player at El Molino High School, graduated in 2011 and put himself through Santa Rosa Junior College working as a Cal Fire seasonal firefighter, starting at age 18.

He was on duty at Cal Fire’s Cloverdale station, relaxing in the day room, when the fire tones sounded about 9:30  p.m. on the fateful night of Oct.  8, 2017. It was an “all call,” ordering all available Cal Fire engines to report to Napa County, where the Tubbs fire had erupted near Calistoga.

“It was something we had never heard before,” Krausmann recalled.

Engine 1483 left Cloverdale with two firefighters aboard and an engineer at the wheel, stopping in Healdsburg to pick up the captain. At Calistoga, the incident commander told them to switch from “fire attack” to a “life safety” mission that involved multiple rescues along Mark West Springs Road.

“It was like a war zone,” Krausmann said, with panicked residents fleeing the deadly, wind-driven fire that defied human control.

The engine moved through an inferno of flames and smoke, minimizing visibility, with tree limbs striking the windshield. Capt. Jason Novak called it a “raging monster.”

Reaching Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, Engine 1483 was sent in as part of a strike team trying to stop a blaze that was feeding on houses instead of vegetation. The team saved two homes with a seldom-used “anchor and hold” tactic of tying into a hydrant, pulling all the hoses off the engine, surrounding the house and aiming water at flames that came at the men faster than a person can run, Krausmann recounted.

The fire killed five people and destroyed nearly 1,500 homes in Coffey Park.

Krausmann was laid off for the season after the Tubbs fire, but called back in December to join a strike team dispatched to the Thomas fire, which killed two people and scorched 282,000 acres, the second largest in state history.

The frightful season solidified his intent to fight wildfires, Krausmann said.

“It’s a passion, it’s not just a job. It’s doing what I love,” he said.

Krausmann said he and his wife, Lexi, are building their first home on family-owned property in Cazadero and plan to start a family.

“Life’s pretty good,” he said.

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