In the rural west, some residents take firefighting into their own hands

PALISADES, Wash. – Molly Linville vividly remembers the “wall of fire” that tore the lawns of her 600-acre ranch during a fire in Sutherland four years ago. With quick work, she managed to lead her 125 cattle to an irrigated field that surrounds her home three hours east of Seattle. After that day, Mrs. Linville decided she would never have such an experience again.

Ms. Linville is one of a growing number of Americans in the rural West who are taking fire management into their own hands: they buy surplus fire trucks, construction tools and converted military vehicles online to protect their homes and land. Some have maintained fire protection for decades. Others were prompted by a close call with a recent fire.

Many professional firefighters are wary of the movement, as they are concerned that it could give uneducated homeowners a false sense of security, especially if residents disregard evacuation orders to stay and put out fires.

Deputy Chief Nick Schuler, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the California Fire Department, put it emphatically: “A man who has a gun and knows how to fly a helicopter doesn’t train him for war. And just because a civilian can buy a fire truck doesn’t make him fit to use it. “

District Fire Battalion Chief Marin Graham Groneman advises residents to invest in consolidating the home, in the process of remodeling the home so that it will be more fire resistant and defensive space instead of heavy machinery. He worries that residents who want to protect their property could put themselves at greater risk.

Nonetheless, he says his department is trying to work with property owners who are determined to help put out the blaze. “They want to take some ownership in protecting their property. This is a very American ideal and a fundamental fundamental right. “

This is a right that property owners in the West are increasingly willing to exercise.

Burnt Ranch, California

Nicholas Holliday began building his own fire protection when he moved to Burnt Ranch in Northern California nine years ago to set up 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 growers, who were not eligible for fire insurance, developed a culture of self-confidence and skepticism towards government agencies.

“I would grab at least one more piece of equipment every year,” said Mr. Holliday, who has become one of the largest growers in Trinity County. “It’s not about if your city is going to burn down, but when.”

Last August, Mr Holliday was ordered to evacuate as a fire on the monument approached the region. But leaving would mean losing the entire crop of the season. Instead, he and a group of residents stayed.

They prepared a converted container truck and a converted garbage truck, both of which were subsequently equipped with 2,000 gallon tanks. They dug fire lines with a bulldozer, surrounded their homes with pipes, and slept in shifts to monitor the fire. They maintained a routine for almost six weeks as long as the evacuation order was in effect.

Professional fire agencies strongly oppose this approach. “We saw people refusing evacuation orders and warnings, and then at the last minute, when they realized they should leave, firefighters were in danger,” Schuler of Cal Fire said. “We’re trying to save them. After all, it could cost them their lives or the lives of firefighters.”

But Mr. Holliday sees it differently.

“I don’t know when we took responsibility from ranchers and owners and transferred it to the forestry service and firefighters to save us,” he said. “No one will save you. I’m not waiting for a charming prince. “

As the Dixie fire moved through the Sierra Nevada, an evacuation was ordered three times in 60 days for the small town of Taylorsville, about 250 miles east of Burnt Ranch.

Determined not to leave his estate, Cody Joe Pearce, a sixth-generation rancher, started an ad hoc community fire service using his own water tender.

“I would burn out before I left home,” he said.

At first, Mr. Pearce performed his night patrols himself and sprayed the structures to prevent them from burning. As the threat continued, he bought two more water trucks and hired friends to help.

“I may be crazy,” he said, “but it felt like someone had to do something because there was no one here.”

Matt Sanders, captain of a fire truck at the U.S. Forest Service, said he understands residents ’desperation to protect their property, but added that without training, it could be very risky.

“I don’t think anyone without training should be fighting for any reason,” said Mr Sanders, who fought the Dixie fire in August. “Prevention is much longer than protection,” he said.

As word of Mr. Pearce’s efforts spread, community members began offering their equipment cheaply or even for free – if he could get them up and running. GoFundMe raised more than $ 25,000 to help pay for fuel and repairs.

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

Burns, Ore.

In some remote parts of the West, an alternative firefighting model has become popular: government officials train and equip members of the local community to put out fires.

Dale and Patricia Martin founded the so-called Rangeland Fire Protection Association in 2000 in Silver Creek, Oregon. One hundred volunteer members serve the region – 780,000 acres of bees and meadows bordering the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon.

“It seemed to me that the rural area needed something to be able to get there faster than they could get to us,” said 84-year-old Martin, who runs a rural shop and archery with his wife.

Silver Creek members pay a $ 50 to $ 500 annual membership fee per area. The funds are intended for the conversion of donated military equipment into firefighting equipment.

Marvin Vetter, coordinator for pasture associations in the state of Oregon, said the volunteer model is liked by rural communities. “People can decide on the level of protection and the level and on who responds or the training,” he explained. “The government doesn’t tell them, ‘You do it.'”

19 Silver Creek trucks are installed at homeowners ’homes across the region. Members receive training in wildfires, protective equipment and communication equipment. The goal is to send trained local volunteers to contain the fires until the arrival of government agencies. Mr. Martin estimates that they respond to about eight fires a year.

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

Palisades, Wash.

After her ranch caught fire in Sutherland in 2017, Ms. Linville lobbied for legislation recognizing pasture associations in her country. When the effort failed, she bought a fire truck for $ 5,000.

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

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

Ms. Linville and her neighbors use a Facebook page to report smoke. She said they prevented many fires from getting out of control on the fast meadow plains.

“We know the country, and it makes sense in the world that we should be the ones fighting the fire out here,” said Ms. Linville, who began her career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and continued her annual training in wildfires. . for a decade.

Firefighters ’unions have strongly opposed Ms Linville’s efforts, arguing that leaving citizens in firefighting is dangerous.

Los Gatos, California

“In my firefighting history, it was called ‘Asbestos Forest.’ We never came here, ”said Robert Seals, describing the region in Los Gatos, where he moved after a fifty-year career in firefighting. “And then it started three years ago.”

Mr. Seals may review a list of nearby calls to his property, including the CZU Lightning Complex fire last year.

He made his first fire at the age of 17 – he lied about his age to be able to hire him. He then led a team specializing in felling large trees during fires in some of the most varied terrain in the West.

He began building off-road vehicles to transport water across uneven terrain. With a contract with the fire agencies, he would allow them to use his vehicles, he would also put out the fire himself.

Now 76 years old, he makes trucks again. But his vehicles are sold mostly to individuals or communities seeking protection.

He is a staunch advocate of personal fire protection. Fire Breakers, his company, consults on fire hazards and cleans shrubs, bushes and other fuels around homes.

After decades of work in fire prevention, Mr Seals is deeply skeptical of the approach of fire agencies.

“All Cal Fire wants is for you to leave. That’s why all they’re talking about is a bag to leave; I’m a bag for leftovers, ”he said. “Yes, leave when they tell you if you don’t know what you’re doing – but there’s so much you can do before you leave.”

Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.

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