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.