Monday, May 25th, 2015
The time has come to start our journey to Oakland, California, where we will be participating in a ride along program. At 8:45 a.m., 8 firefighters led by two other members of the VZW Fire Observers meet at the Brussels airport. Our first flight takes us to Heathrow Airport in London where we will board an Airbus A380 British Airway’s flight headed to San Francisco. It is the first time we have traveled on such a huge airplane. After a 10-hour flight, we land in San Francisco, where we have to go through Border Control and Customs, and then pick up our rental cars. We have two brand new Toyota Siennas at our disposal for two weeks.
Our first night, we stay at a hotel in Oakland. Our local contact for the week-long ride along, Mark Hoffman, lets us know that we need to be careful as it isn’t the best neighborhood. We could smell drugs in the area, so we knew that what he told us was right and didn’t make any plans to be out walking around in the evening. We were able to find a Sports Bar close to the hotel, where we found a good meal and some drinks after our long journey to get there. While we were in the Sports Bar, the crew from a nearby fire station came in. Mark had called to let them know we were in the Bar and they drove over to meet us.
It took a little while to adjust to California time, coming from Europe, so we all wound up getting up really early the next day. We met our contact Mark, Deputy Fire Chief of the Fire Department, at the training center to fill out some forms and to get our assignments for the fire stations that we would be staying at. We are glad to have Mark assisting us. He’s on light duty following surgery, so he’s the right man at the right time to guide us for the week.
Mark shares with us that Oakland is not a great tourist place, there are robberies, a lot of crime, drugs, fires, etc. Dealing with all of these things is the daily life of Firefighters with the Oakland Fire Department. Neighboring city, San Francisco, is definitely a much more tourist-friendly area — so close to Oakland, yet so different.
Everyone then leaves for their respective fire stations and within a very short time, the calls start coming in. It’s clear from the beginning that for some of us, the week is going to be really busy.
During the first three days of the trip, we took time to visit different divisions of the Department, including the 9-1-1 Center, Training Center, Emergency Operations Center, etc. In particular, the EOC was interesting. It’s been built as an earthquake-proof building. In Oakland, it is anticipated that within the next 25 years there will be another significant earthquake ranking at least 7.0 on the Richter scale. We then had a chance to visit the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier which has been turned into a museum. Later, we took a tour out on the water with the RIB rescue boat crew of OFD. We went into San Francisco Bay and saw the sea lions at Pier 39. We also had a chance to visit the fire station at the Airport and completed our three-day tour with the USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) CAL (California) Task Force.
On Saturday, we made our way back to San Francisco. First stop: Coitt Tower, followed by Lombard Street. After finding a parking space (which took a little while), we had some down time to eat and drink before heading to Alcatraz. The boat ride to Alcatraz took about 20 minutes. “The Rock” as it’s known, is no longer open, but used to house prisoners such as infamous American gangster, Al Capone. It is an overwhelming place. While there, we took an audio tour. Then, we went to the Fisherman’s Wharf, where we ate Crab. We had plans to take a cable car, but the line was really long, so we opted to take a limousine to Powel Street for the same price. The ride in the limousine was very memorable – it was a very old car! On the way back to Fisherman’s Wharf, we were able to take the cable car – definitely a much safer trip than the one in the limousine. To end our day in San Francisco, we visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We were lucky that the weather was clear, so no haze to block the beautiful view. We then headed back to Oakland where we all went back to our respective stations for 48-hours to complete the ride along. It proved a very busy time with fires, accidents, shootings, drugs, etc.
Tuesday morning, it is time to say goodbye to our new friends with the OFD and start the tour portion of our trip. We kick it off on Highway 1 and the Big Sur. We head south to Morro Bay. On our way, we see Santa Cruz with its Beach Boardwalk and complete the 17-mile drive in Carmel. Once in Morro Bay, we dine at a nice restaurant with an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean. We all agree that the ride along portion of our visit was really good. And, we all look forward to getting a good night’s sleep without having to go on a call.
The next morning, we head toward Los Angeles and Hollywood and arrive at noon at Santa Monica Beach. We walk from Santa Monica to Venice Beach to see a very different side of California – everything from the outrageous to the glamorous to the poor. Some of our members decide to jump into the Pacific. It’s beautiful but cold. After the walk, we drive through Beverly Hills. Our hotel is only five minutes away from Hollywood Boulevard. Some of the firefighters enjoyed a late evening, which meant the morning came a bit early, but the whole group heads to Universal Studios. Our plan was to hit all of the main attractions in one day, and we were successful. We ended our day seeing a show called Water World and enjoyed a bite to eat on Universal City Walk.
The next day, we began making our way to Las Vegas which is located in the middle of Nevada. But instead of driving all the way through, since it’s a long drive, we stopped off for a night in Barstow. We arrived around midnight. It’s clear we’re approaching the desert as the evening hovered around 30 degrees Celsius. Now, it’s Friday, and time to drive the rest of the way into Vegas. As we make our way into this gambling town, we take a picture of the “Welcome” sign and then head over to our hotel, the Stratosphere, located at the end of the famous Strip. We take a few minutes to relax and then go up to the top of the Stratosphere to take photos. It’s a great view of the entire Strip. We then board a bus that takes us to Freemont Street. Once there, we take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet, including mountains of fish and meat, at the Freemont Hotel. From there, we walk along Freemont Street, where we enjoy some great music and of course, beer. The next day, we decided the best plan was just to relax at the hotel pool. Following the much-needed rest day, we took on the Strip, visiting as many hotels, casinos and attractions as we could. Walking the Strip means covering a lot of miles, so it was a good time to call it a night and get some rest, especially since we were leaving Vegas the next day.
Sunday morning, we get an early start, since there is a long trip ahead of us. We’re heading through Death Valley where we visit Bad Water Basin, Furnace Creek and Dante’s View. The temperature climbs quickly, reaching 45 degrees Celsius. From there, it’s on to Mammoth Lakes, California. More and more, the desert landscape is giving way to big mountain ranges. And, not only is the landscape changing, so is the wildlife. We no longer have to worry about snakes, but instead big bears. Once we reach our hotel in Mammoth Lakes, we are warned not to keep any food out, especially in the car, because the bears will smell it and do what it takes to get to it. The warm temperatures have now given way to much colder weather: only 8 degrees Celsius. It is definitely time to put away the shorts and bring out the long pants and jackets. The evening comes to an end at a local sports bar.
The next morning is one of the most beautiful we’ve experienced. We drive through Tioga Pass and enter Yosemite National Park. Very impressive landscape and so different from what we’ve been seeing. Around noon, we arrive at El Capetan, a large rock mass that is 1,000 meters high and takes approximately three days to climb, for those who are adventurous enough to attempt it.
By evening, the group splits in two. One car heads directly from Yosemite to San Francisco. The other group decides to take a little more time to enjoy what Yosemite has to offer, including Glacier Point. As we leave the National Park, the temperature starts to climb back up to about 40 degrees Celsius. We check into our hotel in San Francisco for the last night of our California stay. The next morning, we are headed back home.
It’s Tuesday, June 9th, our B747 is ready to take us home, with a layover in London. The first hour of our flight is very turbulent, but fortunately, the rest of the ride is smooth and we arrive at Heathrow on time. We then board our connecting flight and look forward to our reunion with friends and family. It brings a great ending to an impressive two week trip!
This 48th stage of the VZW Fire Observers was led by Patrick and Peter with participants Henry, Ko, Timothy, Jens, Johnny, Jorgo, Mariska and Bart. An unforgettable experience in California!