— By Keri Troutman
In his 18 years as a reserve police officer, Berkeley Lab IT Policy Director Stephen Lau has seen a lot. But responding to a call for mutual aid from the Santa Rosa police department this past weekend, in the midst of one of the worst wildfires in California history, was the most intense thing he’s ever experienced while on duty, he says.
“The level of destruction and devastation up there is just indescribable,” says Lau. “I’ve never seen anything like the intensity of those fires — you’re looking up at a four-story-tall pine tree and the flames are rising two stories above that, with trees nearby literally exploding into flames.”
Lau was one of seven officers sent to Santa Rosa from the Hayward police department, which responded, along with other departments all over the Bay Area, to Santa Rosa’s call for help.
Lau’s shift began somewhat calmly. He and another officer were stationed as security posts on the western side of Santa Rosa in an area that was still cordoned off after fire had swept through. Then, at around 3 a.m. Saturday night, they got a call to report to the east side of the city to help with an emergency evacuation.
“As we were rushing across town, we rounded a corner on Highway 12, and what we saw was just surreal,” says Lau. “The sky was a strange orange color and you could see flames shooting up above trees and over the hills.”
As others headed away from the fire, Lau (left, pictured with Cloverdale Police Officer David Haas) and a team of officers drove toward the flames, where they were in charge of evacuating the Kendwood and Oakmont neighborhoods of Santa Rosa as the fire grew closer. Driving down streets with sirens blaring in the middle of the night, the officers were also going on foot door-to-door and responding to calls from many of the elderly residents who needed help evacuating. All the while, they were trying to maintain calm in the inevitable traffic jam that results from a mass evacuation.
“It was so hard because when you’re banging on someone’s door you’re not sure if they’re still asleep or already evacuated,” says Lau. “But you have blocks and blocks of homes to get to, so you can’t wait too long.”
At one point, Lau’s team got a call from dispatch telling them the fire had changed course and they needed to get out immediately. “We had to drop what we were doing and evacuate with the residents,” Lau said. “After we left, we looked back and could just see the flames growing bigger and brighter.”
“The fierceness of that fire and how fast it was moving was extremely challenging,” says Lau. The fire did spread into the Kendall neighborhood that they had been evacuating, but spared the Oakmont area.
Lau saw fire trucks from as far away as Redondo Beach (Southern California) that had come up to Santa Rosa to help with the effort. “It was heartening to see how many different police and fire departments were there helping,” he says. “And the level of coordination from all the fire and police departments up there was so impressive.”
Becoming a reserve police officer and being able to help people in situations like the Northern California wildfires has been a longtime life goal for Lau. “I never really thought I could be a police officer when I was younger,” says Lau. “There weren’t many Asian officers, and definitely not many gay officers, and there still aren’t. The fact that I was Asian and gay basically made me discard the idea.”
But then Lau learned about a friend’s experience in the reserve program. Lau was inspired and has basically made a second career of serving as a volunteer reserve officer. He has all the power and authority of a regular police officer and serves at least one four-to-five-hour shift for the city of Hayward each week, and an additional eight hours of training every month. His time on duty is full of both the mundane and more challenging parts of being a police officer — everything from trapped animals to domestic violence calls, traffic accidents, and ticket writing.
Meanwhile, Lau has been working at UC for 21 years. He started at NERSC doing computer visualizations, then moved into cyber security. He managed cyber security at UCSF, then moved into IT policy for the UC Office of the President before landing in his current role at Berkeley Lab.
“What I find most rewarding about being a reserve police officer is helping people and solving complex problems that sometimes have no correct answer,” Lau says. “The same is true at Berkeley Lab. As an IT policy manager, I need to consider all sides of an issue and be able to talk to people in a language that they understand, whether it’s technology, law, or audit.”
“Being a police officer has taught me how to listen and see things from others’ points of views, while working at UC has shown me how to solve very large complex problems,” he adds. “They’re actually really complementary jobs.”
Go here for information on how to assist victims of the North Bay fires.