While Presidio of Monterey firefighter, David Serna, was working a 24-hour shift battling the River Fire in Monterey County Aug. 19, a sheriff’s deputy instructed Serna’s wife, Gina, to immediately evacuate their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The fire was not a threat to their neck of the woods until that point, but it shifted and began rapidly approaching their home.
Gina called Serna around 2:30 A.M. to tell him the troubling news. He told her, “grab what’s important to you and go to my parents' house.”
Serna remained on duty to finish his shift -- protecting other peoples’ homes and property while the CZU Lightning Complex Fire approached his home of nine years.
“I was really worried about my wife, but I had to stay focused on my job,” Serna said. “If my mind wasn’t there, someone on my crew or someone else could have been hurt."
Once off-duty, he drove to his parents’ house in Davenport to see Gina and his pets. He then decided to go check on their home.
“I was about one-eighth of a mile from my house when I hit a wall of fire,” he said. “It was all just fire … that’s all I saw! He jokingly added, “I did my best Dukes of Hazard impression -- I put it in reverse and got out of there.”
He did not make it to his house to verify the damage, but he knew from the fire’s intensity that it was gone. He said, “nothing could escape that.” He returned the next day and confirmed what he already knew; the house was gone.
Gina managed to gather some important items before she drove away from her home for the last time.
“Everything we own now is in three suitcases, which is all she was able to get,” Serna said. “She got our passports, some documentation, a few pictures, but not as much as she wanted to.”
She also saved their cat and dog, but had to leave their two chickens. She opened the coop door for them hoping they would make it.
Serna found the chickens’ remains and hid them, so Gina would not see their lifeless bodies. She insisted he show them to her.
“She grabbed a shovel head and dug a little hole and buried them. It was closure for her … her girls were gone,” said Serna.
Gina, a professional photographer, lost most of the photography equipment she uses for her business.
Serna lost all of the photos and negatives he had from his thirty years as a firefighter, among other sentimental items.
“My wife bought me a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes [hardback books], which is my favorite,” he said. “The entire collection is gone.”
“It’s sad to lose that stuff, but I didn’t lose what’s most important to me – my wife and our pets,” he said.
Serna and Gina miss their mountain cottage and the belongings they lost, but have been overwhelmed by the support from the Army, PoM Fire Department and the community.
“My fire family and my Army family have caught me as I stumble through this,” said Serna.
Col. Varman Chhoeung, Presidio of Monterey commander and Shawn Marshall, Director of Emergency Services, coordinated efforts to provide emergency relief for the Serna family.
“Between housing, DES, the fire department, FMWR and all of our other directors who could possibly help -- they all jumped forward and starting acting without any direction from headquarters,” said Chhoeung. “It was really good to see how the team came together to take care of one of our own.”
Serna said he especially appreciates the community response because he did not have to ask for help.
“As a firefighter I’m not used to being on this side of it. I’m used to being the one who’s helping,” he said. “Everything that they have done for me has been above and beyond. I did not expect all of this.”
Serna and Gina moved into a house in the Ord Military Community two weeks after losing their home. The Parks at Monterey Bay made an extra effort to quickly prepare the house for the Serna family.
Thomas Joyce, PoM Fire Chief, said Serna returned to work more quickly than expected because of the support he received.
“I can come to work and do my job with peace-of-mind, and I don’t have to worry about my wife. She is in a home where she feels safe, and our pets have a place to run around,” Serna said.
He asserted that the donations and support have brought him and Gina a step closer to normal because they do not have to worry about buying essential items for their home.
“If you take care of your people, they will take care of the mission,” Chhoeung said. “This is a perfect example of that. If you take care of the Serna family, he comes back to work to continue his mission protecting our community, and that’s what happened because of our incredible team here.”