How six men saved nine homes from Valley fire

MIDDLETOWN - Walls of flames, thick smoke and fear of dying could not deter Gary Herrin, his two sons and their three friends from taking a stand against the raging Valley fire as it roared down Cobb Mountain and through their neighborhood Saturday.

As their neighbors evacuated, Herrin and his impromptu fire crew were able to save nine homes, five horses, some goats, two dogs and a pet turkey named Jive. The victories are bittersweet, however, tempered by the losses suffered by so many others, including some of Herrin’s family, friends and co-workers. Some 600 structures have been destroyed in the fire and three people have been confirmed dead.

“I feel bad,” said Herrin, 56, a power plant operator for Northern California Power Agency at the Geysers, where he’s worked for 38 years. He also operates a well-drilling service with his sons, Bobby and Scotty, both in their late 20s.

The fire losses include the homes of Herrin’s brother, brother-in-law, a niece, and the house where he’d raised his sons for 11 years. They also included several Cobb-area homes belonging to the parents of Liam Lynch, one of the friends who helped battle the flames in Herrin’s neighborhood. The other three men fighting the fire were Chet Nielson, Heath Vijsma and Liam Lynch.

As the fire approached Saturday afternoon, the men focused on what they could save, including Herrin’s two homes on 4 acres, where he and his sons live.

They stood in a field, watching and waiting as the fire and a cloud of smoke raced toward them, driven by winds estimated at up to 60 mph.

“The mountain looked like one big ember,” Herrin said.

“It raged over the hill. We could see Harbin (hot springs) was taken out. It was time to go, but we kept staying,” Herrin said, noting that the ground around them was relatively clear of brush and trees, thus easier to defend than some other areas.

No one said a word about leaving, he said.

Armed with hoses, shovels and a small, bobcat dozer, they went on the defensive as the fire and smoke whooshed through the neighborhood.

“It sounded like a train roaring down the tracks,” he said.

Then there was the hissing and popping of the neighborhood’s many propane tanks as their valves heated up and let off pressure.

“It sounded like rockets were being launched,” Herrin said. Luckily, none of those in the immediate area exploded.

He thought they may be forced to give up the battle when the electricity went out, disabling all the well water pumps. But they instead fired up some generators and positioned some portable water pumps into two swimming pools - one Herrin’s, the other a neighbor’s - and connected them to hoses.

They used the dozer to make clearings, tear down fences that were engulfed in flames and to bury tires and creosote-treated lumber because water is ineffective at extinguishing fires on those products.

“My son was in the middle of the flames, pushing stuff out” and away from the structures, Herrin said.

The ordeal was frightening, said Heath Vijsma, 45, of Loch Lomond, who was visiting the Herrins when the inferno descended on Middletown.

“I’ve never seen a sight like that before,” he said.

He said his eyes felt like they were being sandblasted by wind-blown dirt as embers blew around him “like tornado swirls.”

“It was very scary,” Vijsma said.

But he never considered leaving for safer ground.

“It wasn’t an option. Somebody had to stay behind and protect this stuff,” Vijsma said.

The men labored until about 10 p.m. as the fire moved through the town and beyond, incinerating some blocks of homes but leaving the historic downtown intact.

With the immediate danger over, Herrin said he found a green patch near one of the pools and collapsed from exhaustion on the ground.

In retrospect, Herrin can see just how dangerous it was to stay, but he doesn’t regret fighting to save his homes and those of his neighbors. There were no professional firefighters in the neighborhood at that time and the structures surely would have been destroyed.

Some might call the men crazy for risking their lives to save property, but Gary Herrin’s neighbors consider him and his helpers heroes.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Ramona McKell, a retired golf pro assistant, told Herrin as she returned to her unburned home Tuesday.

“I just don’t feel like I’m any type of hero. I just feel like I did what I had to do,” Herrin said.

Herrin’s tough-guy shell cracked a little and he shed tears of relief, happiness and sadness as rain began to fall Wednesday, aiding firefighters’ battle against the vicious fire.

“I haven’t seen rain like this in so long. It’s coming down really good,” he said, his voice breaking. You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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