Story by Rebecca Band
IBEW 1245 member Jennifer Finney had been hoping to make it through the summer “fire-free.”
Finney, who works as a Chemical Performance Technician at the Northern California Power Authority (NCPA) lives with her husband, two children and younger sister in Cobb, a small community in Lake County with a population of less than 2,000 people.
“I just had this feeling all summer… it’s been a long time since Cobb has had a fire. We have a lot of dry grass and dry brush, and a lot of dry trees that are beetle-infested. A lot of fuel [for a fire].”
Right up until mid-September, there had been no wildfire action in Finney’s community.
“We had the Rocky Fire and Jerusalem Fire, but they were not in our area,” she noted. “Those were more towards the Hidden Valley/Lower Lake area.”
But on Sept. 12, the Valley Fire swept in, and everyone in Cobb was evacuated.
“You guys need to go now”
Before Finney noticed the smoke, it was just a relaxing weekend afternoon for her and her family.
“For whatever rhyme or reason, my entire family was home that day,” she said, noting that was fairly unusual for a Saturday, when they frequently had activities planned that would keep them out of the house for much of the day.
The weather was hot and windy. As Finney stepped outside her home to join her husband in the yard, a chopper flew overhead.
“We looked up and saw smoke,” said Finney. “I went inside and told my sister ‘I think there’s a fire…. It’s pretty close to the house. I need you to pack your stuff in a bag, and get the kids ready to go.’”
Finney and her husband drove to the other side of the neighborhood to get a better vantage point of Cobb Valley and figure out where the fire was.
“We had a direct line of sight of the fire from our neighborhood,” said Finney. “As the crow flies, it was maybe a mile or two miles away.”
She knew that given the particularly windy weather, the fire could move fast, and so the couple returned to their house and got ready to evacuate. Finney called her extended family and asked them to come up and help them out. While Finney and her sister began to pack up personal belongings, her husband started to move their vehicles to his parents’ home, which was further away from the fire but still in Cobb. While he was out, he could see the fire getting closer to their residence.
“He called and said ‘Jenny, you guys need to go now. The fire is right in the neighborhood below us.’”
That call came just about 40 minutes after they first saw the smoke, so they had to move quickly.
“It wasn’t much time, but you can get a lot done when you need to,” Finney said. “We told the kids, ‘pack some clothes, and anything mom can’t buy you at the store that’s important to you.’”
She applied that same logic to her own packing decisions.
While Finney and the rest of her family left the area, her husband stayed behind to help his parents and some friends pack up their things. Before going to reunite with his wife and kids, he figured he had time to stop by the house to grab some additional personal items. But just minutes after he got there, he had a feeling that it was definitely time to leave, and as he drove down to the end of their road, he passed right through the flames as they surrounded Finney’s neighborhood.
Finney’s husband was pretty convinced that their house would not make it through the fire, given what he knows about fires and their tendency to burn uphill. Their eight-year-old daughter was also very anxious about the prospect of the house burning down. Finney, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily think about losing their home, and was just happy to have gotten everyone out safely.
“If the house is gone, it’s gone. It’s just stuff,” Finney recalled thinking that first evening. “We got everything we needed.”
The next day, Finney’s husband received a text from a friend. It was a picture of their house, and a caption that read, “Still here.” Against all odds, their house had made it through.
“That picture was worth a thousand words,” Finney said.
That first night, Finney and her family stayed with friends in nearby Kelseyville. But at 6:00am the following morning, the Kelseyville area was also under evacuation orders, so Finney and her family helped their friends to pack up and head out to a vineyard that the family friends own, where they all stayed for a few days until the evacuation order was lifted.
The fact that Finney has a home to return to means that she is one of the fortunate ones. Four of her colleagues at NCPA lost their homes and all the possessions that they weren’t able to grab as they evacuated.
“Everybody’s there for those employees, and offering any help that they can,” said Finney. “The employees have banded together, and the company is treating us well. They paid everyone for the full week [during the evacuation] … And our employee association did offer anyone who needed it $250 to help them during their time of displacement.”
Despite the ordeal and the devastation in her town, Finney still maintains a positive outlook.
“I think the future holds a lot of hope for people who want to rebuild,” said Finney. “The community around here is very strong.”
She may be optimistic, but she remains a bit wary of the possibility that this might not be the last fire in her community this year, and plans to be prepared.
“When my gas tank is half empty, that’s when I’m filling up,” she said.
Eric Wolfe contributed to this report.