By Rebecca Band
IBEW 1245 member Gary Herrin has lived in Middletown, CA ever since he was a teenager. He’s built a life there, established a career at the nearby Geysers, and raised his kids in the area.
Herrin, who works as an Op Tech at the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), loves his tight-knit community and cares deeply about his neighbors. So when the Valley Fire raced through his area before the firefighters even had a chance to respond, Herrin made a bold choice – to stay behind with his two sons and a few friends, and fight the fire themselves.
“No one ever said it’s time to leave”
Herrin had just hopped on his motorcycle and was heading up to NCPA to grab a backpack that he had left at work when his phone rang. It was a friend, telling him about the wildfire that had started in nearby Cobb. Herrin glanced at Facebook and saw friends and acquaintances who lived on that side of the hill posting about the fire, and he decided he would take his bike over in that direction to see what was going on. By the time he got there, the roads were already blocked off, so he headed back to his house in Middletown, where his two 20-something sons, Bobby and Scotty, were hanging out with a few friends.
“We were watching the fire from the hillside, and we saw this huge cloud of black smoke,” Herrin recalled, noting that most of his neighbors didn’t seem to notice or show any concern at first. “Our next-door neighbor is an ex-sheriff, and his girlfriend and kids were out playing in the yard, like it was just a normal day.”
About an hour after the smoke cloud appeared, there was still no official evacuation order, but Herrin noticed some of the neighbors had started packing up. People were leaving. Herrin and his sons figured they should prepare as well. They gathered up the family photo albums and some other irreplaceable items– but they didn’t leave.
“We decided we’re going to stay for now, and when the fire gets to [a certain point], then we’ll leave,” Herrin said. “Well, the fire got there, and we didn’t leave. No one ever said, ‘It’s time to leave.’”
As the fire swept into Herrin’s neighborhood, with no firefighters or first responders to be seen, Herrin realized that the only way his neighborhood stood a chance was if he and his team of young men took matters into their own hands.
“We thought we were done for”
Thanks to his union job, Herrin was as prepared as anyone could be for this sort of blaze.
“At NCPA, they’re always giving us fire and safety training,” said Herrin. “NCPA is so good about all their training.”
But no amount of training could have prepared him for the speed and voracity of the Valley Fire as it descended on his neighborhood.
“The fire was coming down the hill so fast; [the wind] went from 15 miles per hour to about 50 or 60,” Herrin said. “It was blowing so hard, it was ripping shingles off my roof.”
As soon as the fire reached his street, Herrin and the five young men leapt into action. By that time, most of the neighbors had left, and so the Herrins and their friends grabbed some hoses from various neighbors’ yards and pumped water from their own swimming pool to fight the fire. As fences around them burst into flames, the men used the hoses to extinguish them. One of Herrin’s sons used a tractor to tear down the fences between properties to keep the fire from spreading.
“We went across the street, putting out fence fires or just tearing the fences down,” Herrin recalled. “Two houses next door caught on fire, and my neighbor, he was still there. He was trying to hose things down [with an electric pump]. Then the power went out, and my neighbor looked at me, threw the hose down, jumped in his car and left. Not five minutes later, his house was completely engulfed.”
“Once the electricity went out, we thought we were done for,” Herrin said. “The smoke got so thick, I was on my knees trying to catch my breath. As the houses would heat up, the propane tanks would blow off. Every time [that happened], it would sound like a rocket.”
Despite the incredibly hazardous conditions, the men kept working. Another fence caught fire; they put it out with swimming pool water. A pile of railroad ties in a neighbor’s yard went up in flames; they used a tractor to dump dirt on it. They continued in this fashion for hours, combatting the fire with whatever they had on hand or could find lying around.
Herrin credits the bravery of his two sons and their three friends for staving off the flames.
“I’ll never forget the three young people who stayed with us,” Herrin said. “Nothing there belonged to them. And one kid had already lost three family homes on Cobb, but he stayed the whole time.”
Herrin’s makeshift fire crew never mentioned leaving. They just kept working to extinguish flames. At the end of the day, they managed to save nine homes, including the two houses on Herrin’s property where he and his sons live, along with numerous horses, dogs, goats and other animals they rescued from neighbors’ yards.
“We ended up losing about eight or ten houses right where I live,” said Herrin. “I know if we would have left, every home out there would have been gone.”
“Fighting for what we love”
Herrin’s bravery did not go unnoticed. Friends, neighbors and even strangers came by to express their appreciation, and he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he and his boys received.
“All my neighbors, when they came back, they were so thankful. They were hugging me and telling me they loved me,” Herrin said. “I had one neighbor who raises turkeys and chickens, and he brought me a 36-pound turkey. Never seen one so big. People kept coming by and giving us food and sunglasses and all sorts of stuff. I kept telling them, ‘You guys don’t owe us anything.’ We were just fighting for what we love.”
For Herrin, the immediate aftermath of the fire was far from celebratory. As the man who stayed behind, Herrin also had the difficult task of delivering the bad news to his many friends and acquaintances whose homes and belongings were lost. Herrin recounts the experience with visible emotion.
“People were contacting me on Facebook, saying, ‘Is my house still standing? Can you go check it out?’ That’s all people wanted to know,” said Herrin, the grief still in his voice. “And I had to tell so many people that their houses were gone.”
A tragedy on this scale can rearrange the way people view each other.
“I had a neighbor down the street, and we never saw eye to eye. Well, when the fire went up the creek bed … before we knew it, his house was ablaze,” Herrin said. “When I finally saw him, I hugged him and told him I was sorry that he lost everything.”
“We never thought this would happen here”
Even though Herrin’s house is still standing, his family has experienced major loss. Herrin’s brother, his brother-in-law and his niece lost everything they own, as did many friends and acquaintances. Talking about the fire is still difficult for him.
“This is where all my kids were born and raised. We never thought this would ever happen here. It’s always something you see on news, but aren’t involved in. But for us, it’s real,” he said. “A lot of people choose to live up here because of all the beautiful trees and scenery, and now it’s gone. It’s all gone.”
Herrin said that most people don’t realize how hard it can be for a community to deal with the aftermath of such a disaster. Just because the fire is out doesn’t mean life returns to normal. He is particularly upset by the number of aggressive looters that have come through, combing through the wreckage of his neighbors’ homes.
As hard as the ordeal has been, Herrin knows how fortunate he is to have his home and his family, and hopes that eventually his community will flourish once again.
“Every day gets a little bit better,” he said.
Read more about Herrin’s experience in the Press-Democrat.