Some residents take control of forest fires

PALISADES, Wash. – Molly Linville vividly remembers the “wall of flames” that ravaged the prairies of her 600-acre ranch in the Sutherland fire four years ago. Working quickly, she managed to guide her 125 cattle through the irrigated field surrounding her home three hours east of Seattle. After that day, Ms. Linville decided that she would never see such an experience again.

Ms. Linville is one of a growing number of rural West Americans who are taking fire management into their own hands: buying surplus fire trucks, construction platforms and converted military vehicles online to protect their homes and land. Some have maintained fire defenses for decades. Others were spurred on by a close call with a recent wildfire.

Many professional firefighters watch the move with suspicion, fearing it could give untrained homeowners a false sense of security, especially when residents do not follow evacuation orders to stay and fight the fires.

Deputy Chief Nick Schuler, spokesperson for Cal Fire, the California firefighting agency, put it bluntly: “A person who has a gun and can fly in a helicopter doesn’t make them trained. for war. And just because the civilian is able to buy a fire truck does not mean that he is properly trained to use it.

Marin County Fire Battalion Chief Graham Groneman advises residents to invest in home strengthening, the process of modifying a home to be more fire resistant, and a defensible space instead. than heavy machinery. He fears that residents wanting to protect their property will put themselves in further danger.

Still, he says his ministry is trying to work with landowners determined to help fight a blaze. “They want to take ownership of the protection of their property. It is a very American ideal and a fundamental fundamental right.

It is a right that landowners in the West are increasingly willing to exercise.

Burnt Ranch, California

Nicholas Holliday began building his own fire defenses when he moved to Burnt Ranch in Northern California nine years ago to start a cannabis farm.

Such defenses are common in the Emerald Triangle – Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties – where farmers began growing marijuana decades before legalization. These early producers, not eligible for fire insurance, developed a culture of self-sufficiency and skepticism towards government agencies.

“Every year I would take at least one more piece of equipment,” said Mr. Holliday, who has become one of Trinity County’s biggest producers. “It’s not if your house is going to burn down, it’s when.”

Last August, Mr. Holliday was ordered to evacuate as the Monument fire approached the area. But leaving would have meant giving up the entire harvest of the season. Instead, using side roads to avoid evacuation checkpoints, he and a group of residents stayed behind.

They prepared a converted box truck and a converted garbage truck, both equipped with 2,000 gallon tanks. They dug lines of fire with a bulldozer, surrounded their homes with pipes, and took turns sleeping to watch the blaze. They maintained the routine for nearly six weeks during which the evacuation order was in place.

Professional fire departments strongly oppose this approach. “We have seen people who have refused evacuation orders and warnings and then at the very last minute, when they realized they should have left, it puts the firefighters in danger,” Schuler said, by Cal Fire. “We’re trying to go and save them. Ultimately, it can cost them their lives or the lives of firefighters. “

But Mr. Holliday sees it differently.

“I don’t know when we took the responsibility of the ranchers and owners and put it on the forest service and the fire department to save us,” he said. “No one is going to save you. I’m not waiting for Prince Charming.

As the Dixie Fire swept through the Sierra Nevada, the small town of Taylorsville, some 250 miles east of Burnt Ranch, was subjected to three evacuation orders in 60 days.

Determined not to leave his property, Cody Joe Pearce, a sixth generation breeder, set up an ad hoc community fire department using his own water dispenser.

“I would burn to death before I left the house,” he said.

At first, Mr. Pearce made his night patrols alone, spraying structures to keep them from burning. As the threat continued, he bought two more tankers and recruited friends to help him.

“Maybe I’m crazy,” he said, “but it looked like someone had to do something, because no one was here.”

Matt Sanders, a fire truck captain with the U.S. Forest Service, said he understood residents’ desperation to protect their properties, but added that without training it could be extremely risky.

“I don’t think someone who has no training should be out there fighting the fires for any reason,” said Mr Sanders, who fought the Dixie blaze in August. . “Prevention goes much further than protection,” he said.

As word of Mr. Pearce’s efforts spread, community members began to offer their own equipment at low cost, if not free – if he could make it work. A GoFundMe raised over $ 25,000 to help pay for fuel and repairs.

Mr Pearce said he is committed to building his arsenal for years to come. “We’re going to try to build enough stuff, so if we have a fire here, we can go and put it out and not have to wait for the agencies.”

Burns, Ore.

In some remote areas of the West, an alternative model to firefighting has gained popularity: state officials train and equip members of the local community to fight fires.

Dale and Patricia Martin formed what is known as the Rangeland Fire Protection Association in Silver Creek, Oregon, in 2000. About 100 volunteer members serve the area – 780,000 acres of sagebrush and grassland bordering the National Woe Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Oregon.

“I just felt like the rural area needed something so that we could get there faster than they could happen to us,” said Mr Martin, 84, who runs a country store and an archery shop with his wife.

Silver Creek members pay $ 50 to $ 500 in annual dues, depending on acreage. The funds are used to convert donated military equipment into firefighting machines.

Marvin Vetter, Oregon state coordinator for pasture associations, said the volunteer model appealed to rural communities. “People decide the level of protection and the rate and who responds or the training,” he explained. “It’s not the government telling them, ‘You will do this.'”

The 19 Silver Creek Association trucks are parked with landowners in the area. Members receive training on forest fires, protective gear and communication equipment. The goal is to send local volunteers trained to contain the fires until government agencies arrive. Mr. Martin estimates that there are about eight fires per year.

“I just want to see neighbors helping neighbors and people get along and help each other,” he said.

Palisades, Wash.

After the Sutherland fire at her ranch in 2017, Ms Linville lobbied for legislation to recognize rangelands associations in her state. When the effort failed, she bought a fire truck for $ 5,000.

“We don’t have the luxury of waiting for permission,” she said.

His ranch sits mostly on unprotected land, outside the jurisdiction of state or federal fire agencies.

Ms. Linville and her neighbors are using a Facebook page to report the smoke. She said they had prevented several fires from spiraling out of control in the fast-fueling grassy plains.

“We know the land, and it makes a lot of sense that we are the ones fighting the blaze here,” said Ms. Linville, who started her career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has maintained her annual training on the forest fires. for a decade.

Firefighters’ unions have strongly opposed Ms. Linville’s efforts, arguing that letting citizens fight the fire is dangerous.

Los Gatos, California

“In my history of fighting fires, it was called the ‘asbestos forest’. We’ve never been here, ”said Robert Seals, describing the Los Gatos area he moved to after a five-decade career fighting fires. “And then three years ago it started.”

Mr Seals can go through a list of close calls from his property, including the CZU Lightning Complex fire Last year.

He made his first fire at 17 – lying about his age to get hired. He then led a team that specialized in cutting down large trees during fires on some of the most rugged terrain in the West.

He began to build all-terrain vehicles to transport water over rough terrain. Through a contract with the fire services, he would allow them to use his vehicles and he would also take care of the fires.

Now 76, he is building trucks again. But its vehicles are mainly sold to individuals or communities in search of protection.

He is a strong supporter of personal fire defense. Fire Breakers, his company, consults on fire hazards and cleans shrubs, brush and other fuels from around homes.

After decades of work in forest fire prevention, Mr. Seals is deeply skeptical of the fire department’s approach.

“All Cal Fire wants you to do is go. That’s why all they talk about is the bag to go; I am the bag to stay, ”he said. “Yes, leave when you’re told if you don’t know what you’re doing – but there is so much you can do before you go.”

Livia Albeck Ripka contributed reports. Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.

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