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Posted 1/26/2018

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By Robert Kidd

Deb Lewis, an environmental manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, recently returned from helping people whose homes were destroyed by October 2017 wildfires in northern California’s Wine Country. 

Just days before the wildfires, Lewis was in Houston as part of the Corps’ Hurricane Harvey recovery team.

“It’s humbling to meet these folks who survived disasters and hear their stories,” said Lewis. “It was so very gratifying to be able to help them.”

A Sacramento native, Lewis joined the Sacramento District two years ago. Her first federal service experience came at age 17 in the U.S. Air Force – where her work included loading bombs onto airplanes.

Since her service in the Air Force, Lewis studied both accounting and biology. As an environmental manager, Lewis addresses compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Her wide variety of knowledge and experience was of great value when she volunteered to help on Corps disaster missions.

Lewis served as a quality assurance representative in Texas, helping monitor the progress of contractors hauling away hurricane debris. 

She headed to the Northern California wildfire site to help with environmental compliance issues -- interfacing with other environmental agencies regarding haul routes and dump sites. When her accounting background attracted notice on the disaster team, she was asked to help with budget analysis, tracking finances for the mission and monitor staffing needs.

There were a lot of 12-hour workdays plus a few more hours of driving to and from home, but Lewis says “it felt so rewarding.”

But on a harrowing day in early September – before her trips to Texas and Wine Country – Lewis helped save a firefighter who was trapped in his vehicle as the result of a traffic accident.

She helped save the first responder? Yes.

On her way home from work, Lewis was one of the first drivers to come upon the scene when a fire department utility vehicle and a pickup truck collided near Marysville. 

There were five people involved and the collision started a nearby grass fire. 

“I began administering first aid to the victims,” Lewis recalled. “As more people showed up to help, I asked some of them to put out the grass fire, handed a youngster off to another, asked someone to provide direct pressure to a victim’s severe wound and went to check for occupants of the fire truck.”

The fire truck was pretty well flattened as it had rolled several times, but the driver was still in it. 

“I was unable to reach the firefighter wedged near the floor of the truck,” said Lewis. “I introduced myself, told him I was unable to reach him, but reassured him that the ambulance was on its way.”

A paramedic, he listed his injuries as a broken shoulder blade, broken collarbone, broken neck with numb arms and tingling fingers, at which point he burst into tears and told Lewis he was in big trouble.

“It broke my heart that I couldn't reach or help him, but as soon as the ambulance pulled up, I explained his injuries and asked to pass a cervical collar to him,” Lewis said. “Once everything was sorted, I drove back home feeling terrible about the poor guy … feeling bad for all of them.”

Weeks later, Lewis was in Santa Rosa on the wildfire debris mission when she asked some CalFire crewmen if they knew the firefighter involved in the Marysville area wreck.

“Looking at their uniforms, I remembered that the fireman in the accident told me he worked with that organization,” Lewis said. 

One of the crewmen said he was a friend of Kenny, the firefighter who had been trapped in the wrecked fire truck. “He said Kenny had undergone several surgeries, but that he could walk and was on the path to recovery,” Lewis said.

The crewmen gave Lewis’s contact info to Kenny and he called her.

“Remembering the accident, he told me that he had realized he couldn't get out of the truck, could smell the fire and knew – just knew – he was going to die,” Lewis said. “He said that when he heard my voice (he couldn't see me, due to the way he was wedged in the truck) he knew he wasn't alone and that he would eventually be fine. 

He said I changed his life. It warmed my heart that he was alive and going to be well.” 

According to Lewis, his injuries were as he had described them that night, except his neck was actually broken in six places.  “It was touch-and-go for him for a bit, but he is getting better every day,” she said.

Recovery for the fire-ravaged communities in northern California’s wine country is also underway. And things are getting better … every day.

Corps of Engineers Northern California wildfires sacramento district U.S. Army volunteer