Retired paramedic loses RV home; family’s water well, solar panels and dreams up in smoke
By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Henri Migala, Miriam Raftery, Ryan and Gemma Sommers
September 10, 2022 (Potrero) – Ryan and Gemma Sommers had a dream—to build an earth-berm home on 80 acres in Potrero that Ryan grew up on and inherited from his father. So when the Border 32 Fire swept through the community last week, Ryan didn’t hesitate – he headed into the wildfire and fought singlehandedly to save what he could. But the family had no insurance, and their losses are overwhelming.
“I have been trying to live out my father’s dream of living self-sustainability on a ranch,” says Ryan, who lost his father to pancreatic cancer in 2020. Now the fire has torched much of their property, including burning his uncle’s RV home to the ground. “My uncle has lost everything,” Ryan reflects. Ryan and Gemma also suffered major losses, with Ryan risking his life to save what he could.
On a GoFundMe page set up to help the family repair and rebuild their lives, Gemma wrote, “We don’t want to say goodbye to our land that has been in our family these past 21+ years..”
The flames destroyed an RV housing Ryan’s Uncle, Mark Sommers, who also lost all of his belongings and an outbuilding filled with tools. Flames heavily damaged the family’s well, leaving them without water and in need of a very costly repair. Solar panels, an orchard with 60 fruit trees, a truck, propane tanks, farm equipment, tools, and cherished belongings were all reduced to ashes.
It could have been far worse.
After learning of the fire from his aunt in Alpine as well as an alert sent by the County, Ryan drove an hour and a half to reach the property, just before firefighters shut down Highway 94 completely. “I decided specifically to come back and fight the fire,” Ryan told ECM in an interview at his property. “Five minutes later, and I wouldn’t have gotten in.”
Gemma, following closely behind Ryan, was turned away by firefighters. Ryan says that’s a good thing, since conditions quickly became harrowing. She had hoped to load up belongings and take them to safety. “All I could see were flames covering the entire mountain. I was in a complete panic because my husband was in there.” She pleaded to be let in, to no avail. She waited and prayed until she received a call from Ryan an hour later, assuring her he was safe.
But Ryan’s ordeal was only beginning.
“I came prepared with a full-face respirator,” says Ryan in an email sent to ECM. “The entire west ridge of Potrero Peak was on fire. Our oak trees were on fire, including the entire canyon. Basically, I was in the middle of it all.”
When he arrived, his uncle’s RV was already fully engulfed in flames. He pulled his truck into an open area, figuring he could take shelter in a neighbor’s vineyard if all else failed. “I held the flames back from the house using a water hose and fire retardant, chain saw, shovel and rake, running back and forth to the front and side of the house, putting out smoldering small fires that were right up against the house (a modest structure used as a weekend getaway while the couple has been saving to build their dream home).
But the situation worsened quickly. “Eventually, the propane tanks started bursting and shooting 20 to 30 feet in flames in every direction but me, thankfully. All I could do was hunker down next to a dirt berm and wait out the propane fire while spraying water to keep surrounding things from igniting…A pipe melted, causing the water tank to drain while I was battling, leaving me with less and less water pressure…Our water well generator burned. The firefighting equipment, gas powered water pup and hoses, burned before I could set them up.”
Ryan credits clearing defensible space recently around the structure for giving him the ability to save it. “If that brush around the house that we cleared before hadn’t been cleared, there wouldn’t have been a house here to come back to.” He also used a chainsaw to cut down trees close to structures while the fire was raging. He soaked the deck, and went to check on his neighbor’s house.
He was able to save two 40-foot-long containers that contain supplies for Gemma’s business providing childcare at events, as well as some tools, though Mark lost a container filled with his own tools along with all of his other belongings in the RV. One truck burned, but Ryan saved an Isuzu Trooper by backing it up away from flames that damaged the front end.
Dramatic photos and videos reveal the nightmare conditions he was facing single-handedly. Asked what he was feeling during the ordeal, Ryan recalls, “I was more determined than afraid, more hellbent than anything. Fear of losing everything, that overrode everything else.”
Ryan says he saw one fire engine on the road, but it left without taking action. He isn’t sure if firefighters saw him or not. The story is all too familiar to many Potrero residents, who have historically risked their lives staying behind to fight fires when no firefighters were available.
Firefighters from multiple agencies did hold the Border 32 fire to 4,456 acres, with several homes and outbuildings lost, amid high winds in steep, treacherous conditions. But help came too late for the Sommers’ site.
The family’s property burned once before, during the 2007 Harris Fire, when the family lost cars and containers.
His uncle, Mark is a former first responder/paramedic who recently survived a heart attack and came her to retire. He still has memory lapses, struggling to find the words, after being unconscious for 20 minutes after his heart failed and he received a second chance at life.
Mark Sommers first came to the family’s Potrero property, a wind-swept hilltop with views of valleys and mountains beyond, right after the Harris Fire. He’d moved here from Washington State only to find “triple digit heat and swirling dust after the Harris Fire. I thought I’d moved to Hell.”
But the land regenerated with new growth, and Sommers came to call this home.
Then came August 31, 2022, the day the Border 32 began. “I saw it coming form the west,” Mark told ECM. “It was so dark, it blacked out the sky. The wind was at 35 miles per hour. When I saw flames,” he says, he grabbed a friend staying with him and his dogs to get out.
“I lost everything,” he says, sadness shadowing his eyes. “Stuff from my parents, my grandparents, my collections. I had almost 400 antique flashlights, antique battery powered table radios, a camping tent. I had a camp kitchen, and camp beds. All gone.”
What he most needs is an RV or motorhome to stay in. He’s been holed up in a hotel since the fire.
Ryan and Gemma need money to repair their water well, replace a large propane tank and 18 smaller ones, replace an array of solar panels, farm tools, fruit trees, building materials, and more. Help to clear away debris is also needed.
Standing at the windswept overlook at the back of the property, the couple shared their vision of someday building an earth-berm, fire resistant home to live in full-time. But permits are costly, and now that dream seems more distant than ever.
“We want to live out my late father-in-law’s dream of a place of self-sufficiency,” Gemma wrote on the family’s GoFundMe page, “and a spot for family, friends and the community to gather and enjoy.’
Ryan Sommers speaks about fighting the fire with ECM reporter Henri Migala:
Gemma Sommers shares her story with ECM:
Ryan and Gemma talk with ECM about returning to their property two days after the fire:
Fighting the Border 32 Fire: Three dramatic videos taken by Ryan Sommers during the fire: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGsqy8AdWTrqxUx5wKndlPg
Photo, right: Ryan Sommers with the garden hose he used to fight the Border 32 Fire.