Kincade firefighters honored

Three Petaluma firefighters crucial to battling the massive blaze receive distinguished honors.|

The Petaluma Fire Department already had an engine staffed and ready to go the night the Kincade fire ignited near Geyserville. It was a windy Oct. 23 night, similar conditions to the first night of the North Bay fires in 2017, and Petaluma firefighters were proactive this time around.

“2017 was eye-opening,” Petaluma Firefighter Kevin Burris said. “We learned from it and improved.”

Burris was on the first Petaluma engine to respond to the Kincade fire, deploying to Healdsburg just 16 minutes after it ignited. Soon after, Petaluma would send two other engines. Captain Matt Martin deployed to the front lines on the second day, and Battalion Chief Chad Costa coordinated Petaluma’s response.

The Petaluma firefighters were part of a massive inter-agency effort that made a heroic stand to protect Windsor and Healdsburg.

The fire, which lasted two weeks, ballooned to 77,000 acres, the largest wildfire in Sonoma County history. Amazingly, though, no one was killed and only 120 structures were destroyed, two years after the 2017 Tubbs fire killed 22 and torched 5,600 structures.

For their efforts, Burris, Martin and Costa were selected as the 2019 Petaluma Firefighters of the Year.

“The Kincade fire provided difficult challenges for all involved,” Chief Leonard Thompson said in a statement. “Our three Firefighter of the Year candidates showed exceptional courage and leadership in dealing with this incident.”

For Burris, 36, the award is a highlight of a 20-year career in the fire service that began as a 16-year-old Explorer in Santa Rosa. An acting engineer and acting captain, he attended Santa Rosa Junior College and came to the Petaluma Fire Department in 2011. He lives in Cotati with his wife and two kids.

He said he accepted the award on behalf of his fellow firefighters who worked on the Kincade fire.

“It’s great. So many of us went to the fire, I feel weird about” being honored, he said. “A lot of us worked together to accomplish our goals.”

Firefighters credited a slate of aggressive evacuations during the Kincade fire as having saved many lives. Yet with 90,000 homes under threat, including all of Healdsburg and Windsor, it was the firefighters’ efforts that prevented huge losses.

Martin was on the front lines when the wind started to pick up, eventually reaching 60 mph with gusts of up to 90 mph. Firefighters couldn’t leave their engine without eye protection because the wind was blowing so hard.

His team made their way through Alexander Valley to Windsor, where they joined hundreds of firefighters to defend the town.

“It was a good feeling to be able to help the community,” said Martin, 42. “To be involved in a fire so close to home, it’s what every firefighter wants to be apart of. It’s what you train for. It was a highlight of my career.”

Martin, who grew up in Novato and has been with the Petaluma department for 15 years, credited the other three firefighters on his engine during the Kincade fire - Matt Patterson, Jay Levar and Alec Mederos.

Martin lives with his wife and two kids in Petaluma.

“I really like living in the city where I work,” he said. “It allows me to make a difference in my town. It’s a little more special.”

Costa, who has been with the Petaluma Fire Department for nine years, had worked for the Windsor Fire Protection District and fought the 2017 North Bay fires in the Mark West Springs area. A resident of Larkfield, his wife and two kids were evacuated during the Kincade fire.

Oct. 27 was one of the most memorable shifts of Costa’s firefighting career. Overseeing the western edge of the fire from Calistoga to Healdsburg, his responsibility included the fire perimeter.

“This was a non-stop 24-hour shift that included structure defense, perimeter control and anything we could do to limit the spread of fire into our communities. I could write a book on this shift,” he said. “My knowledge and experience helped with managing this area of the fire.”

Costa, who grew up in Forestville and started working as a volunteer firefighter at 17, said the “boots on the ground” firefighters are the ones who deserve the credit for the Kincade effort.

“It’s humbling to know that the membership nominated me, and it’s great to know they appreciate my effort,” Costa, 39, said of the award. “But it’s important for the public to understand that we couldn’t be successful without (firefighters’) blood, sweat and tears.”

The Firefighter of the Year award will be presented at the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence, April 2 at Rooster Run Golf Club.

(Contact Matt Brown at

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