San Jose firefighter loses his own home while battling CZU blazes

Darrell Sales is among those who lost one of the 276 structures as of Monday evening as part of the CZU August Lightning Fire Complex.

Sales is no ordinary homeowner.

He joined the San Jose Fire Department in 2009 and was ready to answer the call when the Santa Cruz mountains started burning.

"I've been going to wildfire incidents as part of a San Jose strike team pretty much since I got hired," said Sales.

At the last minute, though, he was pulled off the rig to make room for more equipment and a driver. Sales said he was disappointed. It turns out, by fate or coincidence, he was right where he needed to be.

He was home in Bonny Doon with his partner, Chelsea, when they both got the call to evacuate.

"We got packed up, all our stuff. Got the dogs," said Sales, "We headed down the hill to a friend's house dropped off a bunch of stuff. Went back up the hill to try and grab some more and at that point, closing in on our neighborhood all you could see was just a glow through the trees."

His experience told him what that meant. His love for Chelsea told him what to do next.

"No home is worth losing a life over. No home is worth somebody risking their life," said Sales.

There was no time to take a final look at the house he'd bought just last year in the Braemoor neighborhood or the beautiful deck he'd built in a rush for his sister's wedding. In an act of brotherly love, he'd created a place for her service after her venue canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Obviously not the wedding she thought she was going to have," said Sales, "But she got married and that's the important thing."

The flames came and swept through the Braemoor neighborhood. The defensible space he'd carefully carved out was no match for the wind and fire.

"The fire that went through our neighborhood, doesn't really matter what you would do or not do you know," said Sales, "A buddy of mine who was working on an engine up there, he had texted me and said hey we tried to get down your road to your house but it's too hot. Everything's on fire. We couldn't make it."

Most of his neighborhood now is a field of ashes and one friend posted a GoFundMe with a photo of the site where Sales' house used to stand.

"For me personally it's a new perspective. I know every year there's firefighters who lose their houses in different wildfires," said Sales.

Sometimes when you lose something, you find what really matters.

Sales says he's grateful for what he still does have: his life, his loved ones, and a stronger sense of community. Those are things he hopes everyone will take to heart through these trying times.

"For me this is a healthy reminder that we all have a lot more in common, than things we don't have in common. We're all in this together. And this is what community is about, this is what family is about."

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana