The grand finale of El Dorado Hills’ longest running holiday tradition went off with a bang in Town Center Sunday night, punctuated by a 10-minute fireworks display that accompanied the arrival of the jolly geriatric and the always fetching Mrs. Claus, who were immediately mobbed by Santa-hungry families.
In an unexpected twist to the otherwise tightly planned conclusion of the El Dorado Hills Fire Department’s week-long, rolling Christmas party known as the “Santa Run,” a low flying jet plane appeared to pass directly through the fireworks display, inducing concerned gasps from children and parents alike.
The annual run, now in its 48th season, puts Santa, sleigh and reindeer atop a fire engine for five evenings, cruising El Dorado Hills neighborhoods with elfed-up firefighters jogging beside to greet families and collect Toys For Tots.
They also collected an estimated 8 to 10 tons of food for the Food Bank of El Dorado County this year, according to “spokes-elf” Dave Roberts, whose day job is fire chief.
Roberts claims he’s only missed two night of Santa running in 24 years. “This is the coolest thing we do all year,” he said.
The Santa Run is put on by the El Dorado Hills Firefighters Association — a support organization that raises funds for community events like the Santa Run.
Association President Jeff Genovese said the annual run has a rich history. He recalled a stop at Lake Forest Elementary School last year. “There were a couple hundred people maybe … This guy talked to someone and was allowed to propose to his girlfriend over the P.A. in the engine. Everyone heard it. It was pretty special.”
Only because she said “yes.”
Sunday evening included the requisite hot chocolate and cookies, lots of community kibitzing, impatient kids, a “Santa Parade” down Town Center Boulevard, including several firefighting apparatus, lots of lights and sirens and then, finally, the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus, high atop a fire truck, accompanied by fireworks.
The elves, many of whom are volunteer firefighters, darted about engaging the kids while safely guiding the large fire trucks through the crowd.
The mischievous Grinch made his traditional frenetic appearance, pestering families and posing for pictures.
Battalion Chief John Niehues shared his favorite Santa Run moment. “I handed my neighbor’s daughter a candy cane one year. She got a confused look on her face, turned to her father and said ‘I thought John was a fireman, I didn’t know he was an elf too.’”
Firefighter Paramedic Chris Landry is the Toys-4-Tots coordinator for the western part of the county. His favorite Santa Run memory also happened last year. “We delivered toys to a family whose dad was overseas in the military,” he said. “We probably gave those kids too much stuff, but it was a pretty cool for everyone involved.”
Landry estimated that he’ll collect 15,000 toys this year, a number that’s up from last year, as is the demand, he said.
Fairchild Village resident Cindi Duran oversaw the collection of a neighborhood-record eight large boxes of toys and food this year, which Santa and the elves picked up on Saturday night, according to her neighbor Art Aguilar. “This has turned into an annual neighborhood event for us, and Cindi made it happen,” said Durant.
Mark Ackerman is a retired firefighter and a past president of the EDH Firefighter’s Association. He reported an incident this year that will no doubt live on in elf lore.
“Mike Ropollo, who has got to be the most meticulous, most careful – can I say ‘anal’ in the paper? – volunteer lieutenant in the district, was driving the Santa engine this year and managed to lose three reindeer heads. Low tree branches must have knocked them loose. He’ll never live that down.”
An elf posse was dispatched, and found the heads on El Dorado Hills Boulevard, severed but otherwise unharmed, fodder for another generation of Santa Run lore.
Ackerman wanted the public to know that all the Santa Run activities, including the fireworks, are paid for by the Firefighters Association. Much of the funding comes from the stipend that volunteers earn when they respond to a call. The stipends are all donated to the association.
Volunteer firefighter and Master Elf Todd Thalhamer coordinated the entire weeklong event. He buzzed around Town Center Sunday night making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, stopping only to deny responsibility for the jet that appeared to fly through the fireworks, likely a UPS cargo plane headed for Mather Field, loaded up with Christmas presents.