By Rebecca Band
Like many expectant parents, IBEW 1245 member Cody Smith and his wife Jessica had a lot on their minds as they awaited the arrival of their first child, due at the end of September. With just a couple of weeks left until Jessica’s due date, the last thing they were thinking about was the possibility of a wildfire taking their home, destroying all their belongings and endangering their lives.
But on Sept. 12, everything changed, as the Valley Fire blazed through their community at a breakneck pace and gave them no time to evacuate.
“Everything was on fire”
When the fire first broke out on Cobb Mountain, Smith, a lineman with PG&E, was called in to work to de-energize some power lines to make it safe for the firefighters to go in and attempt to quell the flames. Once he finished the job, he got a text from a co-worker, letting him know that the fire was careening towards his own neighborhood near Middletown, and so he quickly headed back towards his house. But before he could get there, his wife, nine months pregnant, called him on his cell phone, frantic because she could see how quickly the fire was moving in their direction.
“By the time I got over the hill, everything was on fire. Everything,” Smith recalled. “[The fire] beat me from Cobb to my house, which is about 20 miles, max.”
When Smith arrived at home, he found his wife inside of their family’s 300-foot sand-filled equestrian arena. His younger sister, his stepmom, and another family — a mother and two daughters who had already evacuated their home and had come to the Smith’s to seek refuge — were moving animals and vehicles into the arena, where they felt they would be safest from the flames. At that point, they knew that leaving was no longer an option.
“It was already way too late for us to get out [of town],” said Smith. By that time, all the roads in and out of his community were blocked off. “The only reason I even got in was because I was in my [PG&E] work truck with the strobes on. Otherwise, I would have never made it.”
Smith and his family, along with the other family, camped out in the arena as the fire surrounded them on all sides. They tried to remain calm, for fear that any increase in stress would cause Jessica to go into labor. They made repeated attempts to call for help, but the fire made it impossible.
“I couldn’t get a call out on the company radio,” said Smith. “All the girls kept calling 9-1-1, to see if [first responders] could get us out, but no one would answer. And when they did answer, they said, ‘We can’t get to you.’”
“We watched our house burn down”
Trapped in the arena with no hope of rescue, the group took cover from the heat by staying in their cars with the air conditioning on full blast. They kept driving the vehicles around the arena, and Jessica worried that eventually the cars would catch on fire and it would all be over for them.
“Embers the size of softballs and basketballs were bouncing off the cars, sparks were flying, and the windows were hot to the touch. There was no smoke, it was all flames,” said Smith. “And then, about two and a half hours later, we watched our house burn down right in front of us.”
He attempted to shield his pregnant wife from witnessing the destruction by parking the car facing away from the house. But Jessica couldn’t help but glimpse in the rear-view mirror, where she caught sight of the home that her husband and father-in-law had built seven years earlier, as it was engulfed in flames.
About 30 minutes after their home burned down, Smith managed to get through to someone on the company radio. A co-worker helped to connect him with the sheriff’s department over the radio, and they were finally able to get some assistance.
The sheriff’s deputy arrived, and he and Smith decided that they should try to get everyone out, but in order to do so, they would need to move quickly. Smith jumped into his work truck, the others into their cars. They followed the sheriff in caravan fashion down towards the highway. But when they got to the main road, they discovered that it was no longer passable.
“The phone lines were down all across the road, piled about five feet high. At that point, there was no getting out,” said Smith. “Everything was still on fire all around us, so I sent everybody back up to the arena because that was the only place that was safe at the time.”
While the rest of the group turned around, Smith’s wife stayed in her car out of harm’s way, and Smith used his company radio to call his boss at the Clearlake Service Center and confirm that all the power in the area was out. Once he knew for sure that the lines wouldn’t electrocute him, he went to work, using his lineman experience, along with the rubber gloves and hot cutters he had in his truck, to clear the road.
“I just started cutting everything, all the wires that were in our way. It probably took me about 20 minutes, but it seemed like an hour. Everything was falling all around me,” said Smith. “I finally got the wires all cut, and we were able to leave. I called everybody who was up at the arena, and they followed us out.”
Smith knew that his particular set of skills, along with his service vehicle, were what gave them the means to escape.
“If I didn’t have my work truck, we probably would have stayed in that arena all night,” he said. “We might still be there.”
At 2:30 am, they arrived at the PG&E Service Center in Clearlake, where they stayed until morning. It was there that the women, unable to sleep, decided to surf the internet and look up the meaning of the name that the Smiths had chosen for their baby weeks before. Turns out, the name – Hayden – means “fire” in Welsh.
“Where do you go from here?”
On Sept. 25, Jessica delivered a healthy baby girl. As he held baby Hayden in his arms, Smith beamed with pride and joy.
The Smiths had been through a whirlwind of emotions in those few short weeks, from extreme fear, to extreme grief, to extreme happiness, and also extreme exhaustion. Through it all, they’ve been fortunate to have their PG&E family around to help them through this tumultuous time.
“They’ve been great, from start to finish. Every single one of them. We have no complaints,” said Smith. “They helped us out with fundraising, and they brought the power back to my dad’s house so we could have somewhere to stay for a couple days.”
Smith’s father’s house is located right next door from where Smith’s own house stood, but somehow it evaded the fire. It’s the only house left standing on their road.
The Smiths are currently staying at another property that their family owns, located about halfway between Middletown and Clearlake, but they are looking forward to rebuilding their home, and are already working on getting plans drawn up.
But many in the community are still reeling from the massive devastation, Smith noted.
“Everyone’s looking forward, but I don’t think we’ve hit the very bottom yet. There are so many families who don’t have a house to go back to… some are still staying at the campground. I would say people spirits are up, but it’s like, where do you go from here?”
Read the Smith’s story in the San Jose Mercury News: //www.mercurynews.com/california-wildfires/ci_28813588/family-recounts-harrowing-hours-before-being-rescued-from