By Rebecca Band
IBEW 1245 member Charles Rowe used to love waking up around sunrise every Sunday to listen to the wind blow through the trees and enjoy the peaceful, majestic scenery outside his home in Cobb, California.
“It’s the reason I moved up here,” he said. “That was my favorite time of the week.”
But that was before the Valley Fire struck. Now, Rowe’s house, which he had just purchased less than a year ago, is nothing more than a melted pile of debris, and the lush, wooded view he so enjoyed has been transformed to a charred, desolate hillside.
“We evacuated ourselves”
Rowe, who works as a crew foreman for Utility Tree Service, was over at a friend’s house just a few minutes away from his own home on the day that the fire swept through his community. He was helping his friend cut down some trees when the two first noticed the smoke. He decided to keep working while his friend went to investigate.
“I finished up the job, not really thinking much of it,” Rowe recalls.
But then Rowe spotted the helicopters circling overhead, just as his friend came racing back up the hill to tell him it was time to pack up and go.
The fire had escalated so quickly that the authorities had not had a chance to warn the residents.
“We never got evacuated. We evacuated ourselves,” Rowe said.
He quickly called his 18-year-old daughter, who was at home at the time.
“I said, ‘Hey, what’s the story with the fire? What are you seeing on the news?’ And she said, ‘What fire?’” Rowe recalled. “At that point, it was already down at the end of the street … From what I understand, my neighborhood was the first one to get it.”
As Rowe made his way back towards his home, he saw all of his neighbors frantically loading up their belongings into their cars and trailers.
While the sky grew darker, Rowe attempted to pack what he could. The first items he went for were his prized mountain bikes, but he realized he didn’t have his bike rack installed on his car, so he left the bikes in the garage.
“I figured I’d be back for them in a few days,” he said.
With just minutes to spare, Rowe didn’t have time to collect much. He quickly grabbed his two dogs, his sister-in-law’s remains and some firearms, and got on his way.
“I believe we were the second-to-last people out [of our neighborhood],” Rowe said. “The guys at the end of the street were still packing stuff up, so I told my daughter to take off and I ran down there to help them out a little bit.”
When Rowe finally got on the road to catch up with his daughter, he was quickly confronted with the true severity of the situation.
“As soon as I got to the little valley area by the community pool, I noticed there were about 12 or 14 houses that were fully engulfed [in flames],” said Rowe. “That’s when I started to get really, really nervous, because I knew, more than likely, my daughter went that way.”
Rowe kept driving towards the meeting place he had prearranged with his daughter, and without warning, a huge cloud of smoke surrounded his vehicle. The temperature in the car increased, by his estimate, about 40 degrees in just a few seconds.
“I was surprised that the paint didn’t peel off the car,” said Rowe. “And as soon as I passed through the cloud of smoke, there was a power pole that was down, laying in the road. So I had no choice but to turn around and go back.”
Rowe went back up towards his house, stopping only to warn the neighbors that he had just helped out that the main road was no longer passable and they will need to go the other way.
He was able to talk to his daughter on the phone and was relieved to hear she was ok. They picked a new meeting point, at a motel halfway between Lower Lake and Kelseyville. His wife also met up with them later that day.
“We just stayed there, in limbo, watching it all unfold, watching the cloud getting bigger and bigger,” Rowe said.
At that point, Rowe already knew he had no home to go back to. He had gotten a call less than an hour after he had left, telling him his house was on fire.
Rowe and his family stayed at the motel that night. But at 6:00am the next morning, that whole area was evacuated, so Rowe, his wife, his daughter and the dogs piled into the care once again and started driving. That night, they ended up sleeping in the car. Eventually, they made their way to a family friend’s home, where they stayed for about two weeks until they were able to get a rental.
When Rowe first ventured back to survey the wreckage where his house once stood, smoke was still rising from the area that used to be his kitchen (see video below, which Rowe captured on his phone). He managed to salvage some items that he refers to as “artwork” – including the bumper of his Volvo, which had melted into a puddle – and plans to hang his “artwork” in his new house once his insurance claim comes through.
All in all, Rowe remains in good spirits, despite the harrowing experience he went through and the fact that nearly all his personal property is lost. In fact, he returned to work almost immediately, missing just one day before coming back to his job. That’s some extraordinary work ethic.
“I was more depressed when I was not working, which is unfortunate, because I like my time off,” he said with a smile.
But Rowe’s job – which involves clearing burned trees just a short distance away from where his home once stood – has begun to take its toll.
“Now that I’m living off the mountain, coming up here to work every morning is a little depressing,” he said, noting that the “Welcome Home” signs that others have put up are particularly disheartening, given the fact that around 80% of the homes in the area are gone.
He’s grateful for the fact that everyone got out ok, and that he had two cars parked at a friend’s house that made it through the fire. He’s looking forward to rebuilding his new home, feels fortunate to have supportive friends and co-workers, though he’s declined to take advantage of their generosity.
“We’ve been getting all kinds of offers and all kinds of help, but I haven’t really taken any,” said Rowe.
IBEW Local 1245 knows that Rowe and the other members who have been impacted by the fire don’t want to accept financial assistance from others, but the fact remains that they need the help to make ends meet while they wait on insurance claims. So the union quickly took up a collection both in-person and online via GoFundMe. The union also asked the IBEW International office for a contribution for the Emergency Relief Fund. All these proceeds are going directly to Rowe’s family and others who have been displaced by the fires.
To make a contribution, visit www.gofundme.com/IBEW1245Fire.