The Electrical Worker online
January 2018

California Members Tell of Lost Homes,
Frantic Escapes
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Uncontrolled wildfires spread across parts of northern California in October, killing at least 40 and leaving entire neighborhoods and communities in ruins. Among those who lost their homes are at least 60 IBEW members and their families, many of whom were forced to race from walls of flames, some with only moments to spare.

But IBEW members were also the first responders, restoring power and services in a repeat of the heroic turn performed by brothers and sisters in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria earlier last year.

"These fires were just devastating," said Santa Rosa Local 551 Business Manager John McEntagart, whose local had at least 21 members, retirees and contractors who lost everything and even more who were forced to evacuate during the worst of the fires. "These people had to flee their homes in the middle of the night. I've talked to some who were convinced they were going to die. It's just hard to imagine."

At Vacaville Local 1245, at least 29 members and retirees lost homes and more were evacuated from their homes for days. Several members of San Francisco Local 6 and Vallejo Local 180 also watched their homes and possessions go up in flames.

The fires — there were 21 burning simultaneously at the peak — were worst in the counties immediately north of San Francisco and Oakland, where high winds and dry conditions drove flames into suburban neighborhoods, laying waste to more than 5,700 homes and structures and scorching over 220,000 acres.

Santa Rosa was among the towns hardest hit, where the so-called Tubbs fire consumed 36,000 acres and killed at least 22. City officials said the blaze consumed 5,100 homes and buildings, with damages estimated at more than $1.2 billion. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Tubbs caused more destruction than any wildfire in the state's history.

McEntagart said he spent the evening of Oct. 11, after the fire swept into several Santa Rosa neighborhoods, trying desperately to contact each of his members to find out who needed help. Then, working with his National Electrical Contractors Association partners through their labor management cooperation committee, he spent much of the next day delivering checks that would help them with immediate expenses.

"I told them, that's not the last of it," McEntagart said. "More will be coming, but it's a start. We're going to bleed our benevolent fund dry for these people. We just want them to know they're not alone; they're brothers and sisters in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and we'll be with them until they're back on their feet. The NECA contractors are in with us big time in this."

McEntagart said that in between hugs and tears, members told him stories of running for their lives and 2 a.m. knocks on the door as flames approached. One member, he said, nearly ran over his neighbor, who was standing in the street as he raced out of his driveway, pulling the neighbor into the car and speeding away. "He saved that guy's life." Many who fled had so little warning they weren't able to get to their wallets before leaving, making things even more difficult in the days that followed.

At Local 1245, members were doing double duty, helping their brothers and sisters, but also starting the long process of getting power and gas to customers who had been cut off by the disaster. Pacific Gas & Electric services most of northern and central California, and tens of thousands of its customers lost power as the fires swept through their service area. In many areas, customers had natural gas turned off to prevent explosions.

Mutual assistance — particularly for gas repairs — came from Diamond Bar Local 47 members at Southern California Edison and San Diego Local 465 members at San Diego Gas & Electric, and other Local 1245 members from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

"I am proud of our utility members who headed into the heart of the affected area," said Ninth District International Vice President John J. O'Rourke. "We're keeping all of them and everyone affected in our thoughts, and we've been hard at work rebuilding the infrastructure the fires destroyed."

Local 6 Business Manager John Doherty said his members approved a $5,000 donation to victims of the North Bay fires at their general membership meeting in November and that they'll do everything they can, including holding a fundraiser in the near future, to help brothers and sisters in need. The Local 6 hall was also a drop-off point for supplies and food items for San Franciscans looking to help.

Local 1245 set up a fundraising site,, to accept donations for their members, and Local 551 encouraged donations to their tax-deductible Local 551 Benevolent Fund, earmarked for the fire victims (

"IBEW members are resilient," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "We'll make it through the aftermath of these fires together, looking out for one another, just as we still have brothers and sisters suffering in Texas and in Florida and Puerto Rico after the storms there."

In the midst of the heartache, McEntagart says he's seen the good in people on full display. "We're extremely lucky to have the union," he said. "There are others out there suffering who have no one. We want to make sure none of our brothers and sisters feel that way."


Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Calif., were reduced to rubble by the California wildfires, including the homes of dozens of IBEW members.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr California National Guard




Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 members working for PG&E were among the first allowed into areas ravaged by the fires. Tens of thousands were without power and gas service in the fire's aftermath.

Photo credits: IBEW Local 1245/John Storey