IBEW Local 1245/John Storey
Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 members working for PG&E were among the first allowed into areas ravaged by the fires. Tens of thousands are still without power and gas service.  

Uncontrolled wildfires have spread across parts of northern California, killing at least 40 and leaving entire neighborhoods and communities in ruins. Among those who have lost their homes are at least 45 IBEW members and their families, who had to race away from walls of flames, some with only moments to spare.

The work of rebuilding infrastructure began even as the fires raged on. In most cases, unpredictable, high winds have prevented firefighters from gaining control over the blazes.
IBEW Local 1245/John Storey
Homes, cars and buildings were left smoldering after the fires swept though parts of the North Bay.
IBEW Local 1245/John Storey

“It’s just devastating,” said Santa Rosa Local 551 Business Manager John McEntagert, whose local has at least 20 members that lost everything, and even more under mandatory evacuation. “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, the story is just as heartbreaking. At least 19 active members and one retiree have lost homes and another five are in limbo, evacuated and unable to return and see if their homes were spared. Members of Vallejo Local 180 and San Francisco Local 6 have also watched their homes and possessions go up in flames.

The fires – there are 17 of them burning across California, down from 21 – are worst in the counties immediately north of San Francisco and Oakland, where high winds and dry conditions have driven flames into suburban neighborhoods, laying waste to more than 5,700 homes and structures and scorching over 220,000 acres.

Santa Rosa has been among the towns hardest hit, where the so-called Tubbs fire has eaten up 45,000 acres and killed at least 22. By Oct. 15, seven days after it ignited, Santa Rosa officials said the blaze had consumed 5,100 homes and buildings, with damages estimated at more than $1.2 billion.

A lone member of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 surveys the damage to PG&E's service area.
IBEW Local 1245/John Storey
Entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Calif., were reduced to rubble by the California wildfires, including the homes of dozens of IBEW members.
Creative Commons/Flickr California National Guard

McEntagert said he spent much of the evening of Oct. 11 trying to contact each of his members to find out who needed help, and then, working with his National Electrical Contractors Assocation partners through their labor management cooperation committee, spent most of the next day connecting with the 18 families to deliver checks that would help them with immediate expenses.

“I told them, that’s not the last of it,” McEntagert 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.”

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

On Friday, mutual assistance was on the way from San Diego Local 465 members at San Diego Gas & Electric, Diamond Bar Local 47 members at Southern California Edison and other Local 1245 members from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

“I am proud of our utility members heading 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’ll be ready to step in and help as soon as we know the best way to do that.”

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 this week 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 is also a drop-off point for supplies and food items for San Franciscans looking to help.

Local 1245 has set up a fundraising site to accept donations for their members, and Local 551 encourages mailed donations to their tax-deductible Local 551 Benevolent Fund, earmarked for the fire victims. The IBEW Unity Fund, which provides assistance on a case-by-case basis, may be called into duty as well. Donations can be made here and are especially needed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“IBEW members are resilient,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “We’ll make it through these fires together, looking out for one another. And it’s important to remember that, because we still have brothers and sisters suffering in Texas and in Florida and Puerto Rico after the storms there.”

In the midst of all the heartache, McEntagert 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.”