(Authors note: This is the third in a series of interviews with members of the Anderson Valley Volunteer Fire Department prepared in conjunction with AV Fire Chief Andres Avila and the AVA.)
I met with Judy Long at her wooded home in Rancho Navarro which she shares with her husband Garth. She warned me not to come to the house if I had allergies so I was not surprised to be enthusiastically greeted at the door by a tail-wagging tangle of pets including her giant yellow lab Tanner, her tiny Toy Fox Terrier Sassy and her very fluffy cat Spike. We all tumbled into her kitchen together to sit at the bar for our chat.
I noticed that there were two crowded hummingbird feeders just outside the window serving lunch to about twenty hummers. Judy looked at my basket on the counter and asked me if there was anything small inside because Spike is a thief who will steal anything he can drag off and hide it, a truly curious cat. While I dug into a delicious pecan pie muffin Judy gave me straight out of the oven we began the interview.
I asked her how she first got involved with the Fire Department. It was self defense originally as their home deep in the woods was not near a firehouse. Bev and Doug Elliot told them that they could join up to learn about fire protection. Garth was the first to volunteer and Judy figured if she was going to be sitting at home worrying about him she might as well volunteer too. Judy told me jokingly that Garth would never let her drive the fire truck so that later when Gene Herr told her she could drive the ambulance if she took the EMT class she signed up and Gene, Lynn Roman and Judy all completed the EMT training together. I don’t know if anyone else in the valley has taken both fire and ambulance training; that’s a whole lot of capability.
Judy has been a fire volunteer for 16 years now, having started in 1996 or 1997 and Garth even longer. They both retired last May, a real blow to the department especially the Navarro end. Even so Garth would still jump in a tender (water truck) and head to a fire as a back up and Judy cooks for trainings and would cook for crews in an emergency at the drop of a spatula.
Judy told me, “When you help, people are so appreciative and the more you help the better you feel.” She also stressed that you learn so many skills that are usable in your personal life and on your property. Her greatest fear was of fire but “after learning the science of fire there is no longer that fear factor.”
“It gives you a chance to meet your neighbors in an area like Rancho Navarro where people are all spread out, even some of them that don’t want to meet you!” and, “If you want to be in a really good community you have to be willing to help.”
Backtracking a bit I asked how she and Garth came to the Anderson Valley. Originally Judy worked with Dave Gowan (former AV Farm Supply proprietor) at NASA in Mountain View on the SF Peninsula where Garth, Judy, Nancy and Dave Gowan were friends all living in Campbell. When the Gowans started coming up to the valley regularly Judy and Garth came up to help at their property, attending the variety show etc. and they loved it here. They began looking at property and when Judy saw the place they now live in she told Garth, “This is the one.” At first they only came up on weekends but when Judy retired in 1994 they moved up full time. Still feeling like she was in work mode Judy worked part-time at the Hotel as an innkeeper on Sundays back when then-manager Lauren was on maternity leave and Libby was cooking in the kitchen (a while ago). She worked as a secretary to former fire chief Jim Trubia before Colin Wilson took the helm. No doubt this stint with Fire Department paperwork and administration which took place before she was a volunteer gave her an in-depth understanding of the inner workings of the department.
When asked to recount the most significant thing she remembers from her 16 years Judy told me it was probably the Lighting Strike Fires of 2008, which she said “slammed us.” She and Garth were on engine patrols along Flynn Creek Road every four hours to make sure that the fire didn’t jump by putting out spot fires. At one point they went down a bank with a “charged line” (filled fire hose). Although Judy had a knee replacement in 2006 she found herself climbing back up the bank using the hose like a mountain climber’s rope. If you know Judy you know her sense of humor rarely deserts her and in this situation she told Garth, “I wish the doctor could see me now!” On another patrol at 2am during these same fires she decided to go on duty with her bedroom slippers on since “no one would ever know,” but she ran into a CalFire crew who she said tactfully ignored her feet.
Returning to the value of volunteering Judy like Roy Laird and Clay Eubank kept stressing how really satisfying it is to help people when they are frightened and in dire need. When people in emergencies are conscious it is a lot about keeping them calm and getting their minds off their situation if only momentarily. Most of the calls here in the valley are calls to accidents not to fires. She was initially worried that she would not be able to handle seeing injured people but she told me that after the first couple of bad accidents you learn to shut it off and do what you need to do. Judy has taken special training to lead CISD (critical incident stress debriefing) sessions for the crew. She realized how valuable it was to defuse and help with the accumulation of incidents on a person’s mind when she and Garth would help each other after a call. She told me that some are reluctant at first most realize the value of these sessions and see them as useful. There are lots of ways people can contribute so anyone sincerely wishing to help should call Fire Chief Andres Avila at (707) 895-2020 to inquire or volunteer. Anyone looking for more meaning in their life will find it by helping to keep us all safe and by training to respond effectively in an emergency.