Samantha Sweeden was in an ambulance caring for a patient with a breathing emergency in 2015, when the vehicle hit a rough patch and she was flung across its interior. Ultimately her injuries forced her to retire from CalFire in 2020, and she still has trouble lifting heavy objects.
She’s since been running Bella Vita Mobile Detailing, out of Scotts Valley, and most recently did a six-month stint as administrative chief of Branciforte Fire Protection District—preparing it for a possible merger with Scotts Valley’s fire service.
But in the wake of recent wildfires, she’s been looking to do more to give back.
She decided to organize a crew to head to El Dorado County—the place she got her start as a firefighter—to rehabilitate two engines worse for wear after last summer’s Caldor Fire. A crew from Santa Cruz County also helped beat back that fire, which scorched 222,000 acres and injured five people.
Sweeden explains how a new outer layer can do wonders for fire truck longevity.
“What happens is when you put the ceramic coating on it’s basically a protection barrier around the whole vehicle,” she said April 1, the day before the sprucing-up was to begin. “We’re all doing it for free.”
Over the years, Sweeden’s seen how the retardant drops from firefighting aircraft can stain engines. She’s seen how long it can take to scrub it off in the aftermath of a wildland battle. Plus, the trucks are constantly getting scratched up by branches and other vegetation, she added, explaining why she rounded up detailers from Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho and the Sacramento Valley for the pro bono task.
To get the job done right she estimated she’d have to invest about $6,000 of her own money for supplies alone.
But she reached out to Bob and Dave Phillips of P&S Detail Products to see if they’d be willing to chip in.
“All of a sudden Bob calls me up and says, ‘I’m going to give you everything to do the job; we want to help you give back,’” she recalled. “They’ve pretty much given all the products to do the coating.”
Rancho Dominguez-based Buff and Shine donated the pads that are key to finishing the job, she says.
“It comes out like a glass finish,” she says, adding a wrong move at this step can spell disaster for the vehicle’s body. “You can burn right through it.”
It was the day before the big volunteer project. Sweeden had just returned from the Sacramento airport to pick up Kelly Mankin, the owner of Ake Ake Professional Detailing.
Sweeden was pretty thrilled to have Mankin along for the initiative, given her role as part of the elite Detail Mafia organization and the fact she helps buff out the Air Force One plane located at the Museum of Flight’s Aviation Pavilion in Tukwila, Washington.
Sweeden hopes one day to have the opportunity to follow in Mankin’s footsteps as a detailer of the retired presidential plane.
In the end eight people participated in the regional “Detail Mafia” mission organized by Sweeden.
After three shoulder surgeries, Sweeden had to leave firefighting. And she especially misses the opportunities to contribute to the well-being of the area, she says.
“It sucks because then you’re in the regular world,” she says, looking back on how meaningful it felt to participate in the charity events. “You get to do spaghetti feeds and crab feeds to give back to the community.”
Sweeden says she’s working with the Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce, to organize a charity car show for next year.
But the Caldor Fire hit close to home—literally. The house her dad built (which she now owns) is located in Pollock Pines, less than a quarter-mile from the wildfire’s perimeter.
“It’s just like Felton area,” she says. “There’s a lot of trees.”
On Saturday, the group headed out to Station 28 in Shingle Springs and got to work on Engine 328, a 12-year-old wildland truck.
“It’s the engine they take on strike teams,” she reported Monday morning. “It seems like it’s always gone in the summer, they said. It was in serious need of help; the paint in some areas was failing … We got to it just in time.”
Sunday the detailing collective were about 40 minutes up the road, in Pollock Pines, improving Eldorado County’s Engine 17 at Station 17.
“We had fun,” she says. “The guys at the station—especially Station 28—were appreciative and interested in learning how to protect and continue maintaining what we did.”
For Sweeden, this was the best part of the whole experience.
“When people are that invested in wanting to know how to maintain what we are spending so much time repairing, it makes all the hard work and time well worth it,” she says.
Next year, she says she’s hoping to do a similar project in Santa Cruz County.