The State Worker

‘Who drives into the flames? He did.’ Cal Fire firefighter hailed as a hero

After his friends saw him on 60 Minutes, Cal Fire firefighter Joe Kennedy started hearing acquaintances call him the h-word – hero.

He’s uncomfortable with it. What he most wants to talk about are the things his colleagues did to save lives when the Camp Fire overwhelmed Paradise.

“There were so many good saves,” Kennedy, 36, said in a phone interview.

Count his among them.

Kennedy is one of the legion of public employees who hunkered down during the worst hours of the Camp Fire to clear roads and usher fleeing people to safe havens.

His actions behind the controls of a bulldozer came to prominence last week when the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released footage showing him loading a deputy and a group of nurses into his machine while flames burned both sides of a road and gusts of burning embers swept across the scene.

The deputy had turned on his body camera because he believed he was going to die, the sheriff’s office said when it released the footage.

It shows the group walking down Pentz Road, with one of them saying, “It’s bad.”

“And all of a sudden, the bulldozer who I swear to God is an angel, was the one who came through. I don’t know where that man came from. I mean, who does that? Who drives into the flames? He did,” Eva Walker, one of the Feather River Hospital nurses, told 60 Minutes.

Kennedy, of Grass Valley, sounds like he doesn’t know what to do with the attention.

“In reality that mountain was covered in first responders doing heroic things, executing great things. What I did was just one of the spokes in the wheel,” he said.

He got to Paradise the morning of Nov. 8 and found flames already encircling the Feather River Hospital, where he was supposed to unload his bulldozer and get to work.

Normally dozer drivers like him are supposed to work well ahead of a blaze, scraping breaks in the earth to slow a fire’s progress. That wasn’t possible in Paradise.

“So I tried to save homes and people,” Kennedy said, describing how he used the dozer to pull burning vegetation away from homes that had not yet caught fire.

He heard a dispatch call from an engine requesting air support. It was stuck in traffic with the fire coming. He knew an air drop would be impossible in the blackout smoke that enveloped the town.

Kennedy set off to look for the crew, aiming to clear a path for the engine.

Another engine signaled it was behind him. Kennedy couldn’t see the team, but “I knew someone had my back.”

Heat from the fire shattered his machine’s windows. Asphalt melted.

He continued.

A flashlight caught his eye. It blinked again.

He slowed.

It was the Butte County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Parmley, walking with nurses who’d been evacuated from the hospital.

Two nurses and the deputy scrambled on the dozer before finding safety with the engine that had followed Kennedy down Pentz Road.

Kennedy continued in search of the team that was trapped by burning and abandoned cars. He was getting close.

“Several of the cars on the outside of the traffic were on fire,” he said. “I started removing fully involved vehicles from traffic, attempting to protect people who were hiding in their cars.”

Kennedy found the engine that had called for air support, and then led it and a group of civilian drivers to the hospital.

Then, Kennedy drove out again, removing burning cars from roads to clear evacuation routes.

Cal Fire is the main firefighting agency in Butte County, and 41 of Kennedy’s colleagues lost homes in the fire. He thinks about their losses when he’s asked about what kept him going back into the fire.

“I went to the briefing the next morning. You could see it on the faces of people who lost their houses. They didn’t even think about going to their own houses. They were just so worried about the community,” he said.

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