Facing the flames; City College student rescues residents from Napa Valley fires

City College student Kevin Burkes works full-time as an emergency medical technician. | Photo by Jiaxin Lu | Staff Photographer | jlu.express@gmail.com

Margo Alexander
Staff Writer
Malexander.express@gmail.com

Sometimes plans are made to be broken.

While in high school, Kevin Burkes attended the United States Air Force Preparatory School, played football and was in the process of enrolling in the Air Force Academy. He was 18 years old. Two months before he was supposed to start classes and play on their football team, he tore his ACL meniscus, and he was sent home to Sacramento. Unable to attend the academy, he decided to go to City College as a part-time business major.

Burkes switched his major to criminal justice with plans to transfer to Sac State the following year, with his long-term goal being a career in law enforcement. He eventually got a job as an emergency medical technician.

In addition to being a full-time student, Burkes, now 21, is a full-time EMT. We works 42–44 hours per week, not including overtime.

“I am taking 13 credits, and trust me, it’s hard,” says Burkes. “I am struggling because I don’t really get much sleep, but I can still perform well enough. As long as I finish my classes and have at least a 2.5 (GPA), I am good to transfer.”

One morning last October, when Burkes heard about the major fires in the Napa Valley, he called his communications director and volunteered to be put on a list for a strike team that was being put together with his company, Norcal Air Ambulance.

Things unfolded quickly. Burkes got the call from his supervisor that afternoon while sitting in his criminal justice class. They needed him to report for duty right away.

Burkes grabbed his backpack and headed to the rendezvous point. To his surprise, he was put in charge of 12 people.

“That was a big eye opener for me. That was my first time actually being in charge of something that big, and that real,” says Burkes.

As an EMT, Burkes’ task consists of performing basic level emergency medical services and assisting paramedics. The EMT drives the ambulance while a paramedic assists patients in the back. Burkes was ready and willing to help when he got the call to assist in the Napa fires.

“We were pumped the whole time, we were just ready to go,” says Burkes. “We went up to our meeting point in Napa, and it was dark, and very smoky. We could see the lines—the different fire lines.”

Burkes, along with his crew, was responsible for evacuating large numbers of people in two counties.

“We had to evacuate the town of Calistoga,” says Burkes. “We were up there for a total of 55 hours in a row, with no break. On the strike teams, our main job was to evacuate the surrounding areas, so we had to evacuate the veterans’ hospital home. There were hundreds of ambulances from all over, even from southern California.”

Burkes was also sent to Contra Costa County where he and his team had to evacuate houses, knocking on each and every door to make sure that people made it to safety.

“We had the whole grid to evacuate,” says Burkes. “We had to go to certain houses because we knew that we had to get certain people, because they were not ambulatory—bedridden and all that—and we knocked on every door down the line, until every ambulance was filled with people.”

The strike team’s focus was not solely on saving people’s lives, but also on saving the evacuees’ precious belongings.

“There were many, many people with trailers getting out the animals; dogs, horses,” says Burkes.

Now looking into the future, Burkes is applying to the Sacramento Police Academy, and hopes to start in July. He admits it’s strange looking back.

“There are still some moments where I think, ‘Wow, I was a part of that?’” says Burkes.