- It was November 2018. It was the devastating Woolsey Fire.
- State of Emergency declared in Southern California.
- Mandatory evacuations of over 200,000 people.
- More than 6,000 homes destroyed.
“It was fairly remarkable how fast that fire was moving,” says Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Pete Finnerty. He and fellow captain, Chris Siok, were patrolling the area by vehicle in the early morning hours of November 2018.
With maximum visibility of 10 feet, navigating the area proved challenging. “You’re looking at the clock, and it says 11:45 a.m. But then you look out the window, and it looks like midnight,” recalls Pete. What they could see through the thick smoke were flaming orange balls of burning brush, trees, and structures at every angle.
Then, they received the evacuation call. A woman was trapped in her home. She provided her location and stated, “It sounds like there’s a bomb going off outside. All I can see is fire. My house is on fire…”
The line went dead.
They had to get to her quickly, but it wouldn’t be easy. Multiple attempts to reach the home were slowed by what was now zero visibility due to fire activity, high winds, and downed infrastructures. Determined, Pete and Chris worked together as a team, with Pete using Avenza Maps to direct Chris, who was driving.
Despite the thick smoke and raging flames on the left and right sides, Chris successfully navigated the rescue truck around power poles leaning at 45-degree angles.
He slowly turned the corner. That’s when they saw a large metal mailbox with the caller’s street number, but only for a second before smoke impaired their visibility again. Fortunately, the thick haze cleared just long enough for them to catch the address.
While Chris turned the vehicle around, preparing for a quick escape, Pete started up the hill in his search for the woman. Everywhere Pete looked, something was burning.
The residence was set back about 300 feet from the main road. Pete hurried down the drive, calling out, “Hey, Fire Department! Is anybody here? Can you hear me?”
Time was of the essence. He needed to get the woman out as quickly as possible.
Pete continued toward the home. There were fallen trees and electrical wires between him and the house, but that didn’t stop him. As he neared the residence, he repeatedly called out. He finally heard a voice respond.
He kept running towards the house, “Don’t stop yelling! It’s the fire department! We’re here!”
Pete arrived at a two-story home with the top floor ablaze. He found the female caller in the courtyard of her home, leaning against a brick wall and clutching a garden hose in her hand. She was as far away from the house as she could get, which was only about 10 feet. The woman’s home, including the front door, was burning. When she saw Pete, her face transformed from horror to absolute relief. Time was running out, and despair had immediately turned to hope.
Without delay, Pete radioed Chris to let him know that the woman was found, and they were returning to the vehicle.
Chris met them on the drive. The experienced fire captains knew all three of them would have to step over burning trees and under fallen wires to make it back to the vehicle. Each grabbing an arm and leg, they used a traditional fireman’s carry to bring her safely to the waiting truck.
Pete and Chris again relied on their mapping app to guide them out of the fire, where they transferred the woman to the paramedics.
Now back in their rescue vehicle, Pete turned to Chris and asked, “Okay, what’s next?”
About Pete Finnerty
Pete has been a member of F&A Federal Credit Union for 22 years. His rescue efforts during the Woolsey Fire earned him the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Medal of Valor, the highest honor for bravery in the line of duty. We applaud his act of heroism and thank him for his service to the community.
Stories featured in F&A’s Member Heroism Campaign receive a $250 cash award. Pete generously donated his award to the Los Angeles County Fire Department Foundation, an organization that educates and trains the community on fire and life safety.