Lake County

‘You Felt Like You Were the Last Two People on Earth': Couple Recounts Battling Valley Fire to Save Neighborhood

Rain -- just even a little of it.

What John and Teri Gormley wouldn't have given for a little rain on that day in September. A day they stood at Lake County's Cobb Mountain, convinced the Valley Fire was in the process of consuming their home not more than a mile away.

But the Gormleys were able to keep the fire at bay, saving their residence and 28 of their neighbors' homes in the process.

How the Gormleys were able to keep the fire from encroaching their neighborhood began earlier in the day when John, a current firefighter, and Teri, a retired firefighter, heard about (what was at the time) small blaze burning near a friend's ranch and headed over to help.

"He said 'Do what you can to save my house. I've got a grass rig,'" John said.

The grass rig, a pickup truck with a water tank and pump, would eventually prove critical to the Gormleys.

What they were facing at their friend's house was no big deal for a couple with 44 years combined firefighting experience.


"Wasn't concerned about it at all," John said. "We were both in our T-shirts and shorts, and I wasn't worried."

That was until John looked back toward his house.

"The whole hillside was on fire," John said.

John and Teri jumped in the grass rig and raced home. Once there, they scrambled to keep the fire from spreading to the trees behind their home.

But no matter how hard they worked, the Gormleys could not slow down the flames.

"At some point I am looking around and now I'm getting scared," John said. "If this fire comes around this house, there's no way out. You're going to burn to death."

Teri said John is rarely scared of anything.

"Nothing scares him. I mean really, nothing scares him," Teri said. "He's really a very solid person -- very brave, very together. And to see him look scrambled and panicked just terrified me."

John eventually yelled to Teri that it was time to get out from fighting the massive blaze.

"Out of my 27 years as a firefighter and being on a lot of both wildland fires and structure fires, and lot of other calls where you get very nervous or fear for your life, or your crew's life," John said. "Hands down this was the scariest day, scariest time, scariest fire of my life."

They abandoned the fight and retreated to a safe space, a parking lot less than a mile from their home. After catching their breath, and shedding a few tears, John decided who couldn't give up on the home he built with his own hands twenty years earlier.

"He said I'm not a quitter," Teri said of John. "I'm going back. Are you with me?"

The couple returned to their home, finding the structure still there and just enough of their backyard burned to give them a safe space.

The Gormleys would spend the next 72 hours keeping the fire at bay.

Without any help, or any contact from the outside world, the Gormleys patrolled their neighborhood in the grass rig using water from their creek to put out spot fires where they found them.

If just one of their neighbors' house burned, they might lose all of them.

"It was very eerie, just dark. You felt like you were the last two people on Earth," John said. "You felt like the world ended and you were the last two people."

Today, their neighborhood still exists -- a stark contrast to so many around them.

"You know you work together. You work side-by-side and one's not going to give up just because you now the other one does," Teri said. "You just pull yourselves together and it was definitely teamwork. We could not have done this without each other. There was just no way."

Neighbors are back in their homes without a shred of doubt who is responsible.

"Unbelievable," neighbor Laura Patrick said of the Gormley's saving their neighborhood. "It's the most selfless thing ever. We can never thank them enough."

John and Teri said the whole experience has brought them closer together, each saying they could not have had a better partner during such a difficult time.

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