A fire chief in Northern California lost his home to the wildfires raging through the region while evacuating his neighbors from the blaze as it tore through his Santa Rosa, California, neighborhood.
“He had just gotten his family in the car and watched them leave, then went down the street, knocking on doors, evacuating his neighbors when his home was hit,” Linn Walsh tells PEOPLE about Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch.
Welch continued working another 14 hours when Walsh, who works as the assistant to Mill Valley’s city manager, finally tracked him down on the phone late Monday night.
“He sounded okay,” she says. “This is what they do and train for, putting their needs behind the needs of others. Tom is no different. Public servants like him really are the heroes in our community.”
Nearly two dozen fires are currently raging across Northern California, killing at least 21 people while 560 people are reported missing, according to Cal Fire. Nearly 3,500 homes and businesses have been razed, along with 170,000 acres.
Welch was on a conference call at 1 a.m. on Oct. 9 with other firefighters, discussing the logistics of how his department, along with others in Marin County, would fight the Northern California wildfires.
After the call ended, he left his house on foot and began walking through Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood when he eventually spotted the firestorm moving in his direction.
Before assisting Santa Rosa police in their efforts to evacuate his neighbors, he called his wife Buffy and told her to get their two teenage kids into their car and flee.
“When you’re in that moment of a live fire, it goes by pretty fast,” Welch, who joined the Mill Valley Fire Department in 2000, told the Marin Independent Journal. “There were still homes to save. I had to move on to the next house, and then the next.”
Welch, says Walsh, has declined to do any additional interviews.
“He understands that right now the spotlight is on him, but he really wants the focus to be on the firefighters and the other first-responders who are working so hard up there, battling these fires,” she adds. “Tom just sees himself as part of that team.”
A YouCaring.com crowd-funding effort has been launched for Welch—and other city employees impacted by the fires—by the city of Mill Valley. As of press time, over $69,000 had been raised.