Dirty Jobs: Blood on the Highway
“There’s blood on the highway
So many lives between the lines…”
from Blood on the Highway by
– Ken Hensley
Few people have seen and cleaned up as much blood on the highway as Monte Rio fire chief Steve Baxman — but he’s been able to keep most of his own blood from leaking out.
Baxman is in his 43rd year of having people die in his arms, prying them out of twisted hulks of metal, lifting floaters out of the Pacific and helping with the occasional child birth. It’s dirty work and it’s not for everyone.
“It brings out the best in people and it brings out the worst,” says Baxman who believes “we’re here to help each other — isn’t that what we’re here for?” and has never once considered retiring. “Fortunately,” he says, “most people do the right thing.”
His dad was an aircraft mechanic at Hickham air base in Hawaii and when he was 13 or 14 years old he’d hang around watching the action. Eventually the emergency and fire crews adopted him — he was a quick study and he learned by watching.
The Monte Rio fire station gets some 500 calls a year and some are more memorable than others. He recalls a quadruple fatal where two cars each with two people collided head-on on River Road near Odd Fellows Park Road.
But the messiest, he says, involved a motorcycle, a truck and a drunk in a station wagon who tried to make a slow u-turn on the highway near Berry’s Lumber Yard. He was hit on one side by the truck and then the other side by the motorcycle — two killed, two injured and blood spattered all over the highway.
The fire trucks at one time hosed it off but now they have absorbent pads and compounds with which to soak it up. “We wear gloves, of course,” says Baxman but dealing with an unknown’s blood can be hazardous anyway. “You can say you’re used to it and you have to get used to it, but you never do.” Asked if he personally knew people he tended to in wrecks and emergencies, he replied, “Oh yeah — about 8o to 90 percent.”
Talking about controlling himself, “If you break down,” especially when there are survivors, “the whole thing breaks down,” he explains. “We try to send people who are engaged in traffic control duty who can handle it.”
Baxman has also been in mutual aid situations “from Oregon to the Mexican border.” One fire in Southern California took the life of a Novato fireman, he recalls. If mutual aid is required the situation is serious and may be out of control.
The week-long August 1978 Creighton Ridge fire, sparked by a lawnmower in the hills above Cazadero, had Baxman and his crew taking evasive maneuvers and running for their lives. According to Baxman, 8,000 acres burned in eight hours.
From Neistrath Road they fled to Pole Mountain and then to Munoz Ranch with the fire hot on their heels. Russian River Meadows (aka Rien’s Beach) where Cazadero Highway heads up to King Ridge and Ft. Ross roads served as a staging area where tents and portable kitchens were set up for the 500 people who were fighting the fire in shifts.
Steve Baxman is always on call and lives in a Monte Rio house (known for having the most beautiful Christmas light display in town) with his sweetie, Gabriela Gibson. He’s never been married.
His sister Deanna recently retired from her job as a Cal Fire Division Chief in Mendocino.
For the Baxmans, firefighter blood runs in the family. And as long as it doesn’t run out, they take satisfaction from what they do.
“Don’t look for reasons and don’t ask me questions
I have the plan I don’t need suggestions
I’ve been doing this for a real long time”
– Ken Hensley