Fire safe council leaders are seeking new generation with meeting next month
“We had just gotten home, and the smoke was bad — so bad,” said Sharol recently, recalling the moment before Del Norte County’s emergency service manager asked the elderly couple to evacuate all homes off Low Divide Road.
While standing on a ridge, a surge of fire almost knocked them down.
“I said, ‘Let’s get the hell off of this mountain,’” Dan recalled.
The fire burned within a mile and a half of the elderly couple’s home, Dan recalled.
“We had holes burned into our deck,” Sharol added.
Just a few months after the Biscuit Fire, the Cal Fire battalion Chief held a meeting urging county residents to create a local fire safe council, a grassroots, community-led organization that mobilizes residents to protect their homes and communities from wildfire.
“They wanted to start a fire safe council and nobody stepped forward, so we did," Sharol said.
Since 2002, the Del Norte Fire Safe Council, under the Leavitts’ leadership, has created the Del Norte Fire Safe Plan, received millions of dollars in grants for fire breaks and water storage tanks, and they loaned equipment to dozens of Del Norters to help them make their homes fire safe.
“They have more than stepped up and provided their civic duty,” said Tim DeVos, Cal Fire Battalion Chief for Humboldt-Del Norte Unit. “People may not realize the direct impact that they’ve had on the local community or the benefits that they’ve provided.”
But after leading the Del Norte Fire Safe Council for nearly 12 years, the Leavitts are looking for others to take the baton, as Dan has been in a battle with cancer treatment since 2012.
To find that new leadership, the Del Norte Fire Safe Council will be holding a meeting at 6:30 p.m. June 9 at the Cal Fire station in Crescent City (1025 U.S. Highway 101, Crescent City).
When the Del Norte Fire Safe Plan, an outline for community wildfire risks and possible prevention techniques, was finalized under the Leavitts’ leadership in 2005, it was one of only 13 such plans in the state of California.
Having a fire safe plan in place has made more money available for the U.S. Forest Service and other entities to create fire breaks and provide 40 water storage tanks for fighting fires in remote communities like Low Divide, Rock Creek and Big Flat.
Since its first year of grant-making in 2004, the California Fire Safe Council has secured more than $81 million in federal fire prevention funds for groups like the Del Norte Fire Safe Council.
The Del Norte Fire Safe Council also has provided assessments of fire risk for homeowners, providing feedback as to how risks can be mitigated and how to create 100 feet of defensible space, a patchwork of vegetation that does not allow fires to spread easily.
As long as residents provide the manpower, the fire safe council can provide a wood chipper and a trailer full of weed eaters, chain saws, and pole saws.
“When they find out what needs to be done, they can have the neighborhood come together and get it done,” Dan said.
“We can’t supply a workforce, but we can supply equipment,” Sharol said.
Working with the fire safe council to create defensible space has helped tremendously with residents’ homeowners insurance plan as well, Sharol said.
Dan Leavitt sees the fire safe council as a great opportunity for young people to become introduced to the possibilities of a career in fire fighting.
“For the younger folks that have an interest, the fire safe council can certainly open doors in the fire service,” DeVos said.
Through the council, the Leavitts have also enjoyed staffing the Red Mountain fire lookout during multiple fire seasons.
“I’ve really enjoyed this. I’ve had a lot of fun and met some really neat people,” Dan Leavitt said. “It was such a neat opportunity to get involved with the fire aspect and prevention.”
The experience has also been “very rewarding” Dan said.
“When you get through with a 5-mile long, 300-foot-wide fuel break, you can stand, put your hands on your hips, look back and feel like you accomplished something,” Dan said. “If a fire starts someplace they’re going to be able to get in there and work on it because it’s cleared.”
Due to the time required to deal with Dan’s health, the Leavitts said they have been missing out on opportunities to be involved with the larger state network of fire safe councils and attend trainings on the latest developments in fire prevention.
“What we need is young people to come in with some enthusiasm and run the fire council,” Sharol said. “We’re senior, senior citizens.”
Keeping up with fuel reduction plans has also been difficult in recent years.
“At this time of year in Del Norte County the fuels grow so rapidly that to maintain the fuel reduction program is essential,” DeVos said.
Fires happen less frequently in Del Norte County, the rainiest place in the Lower 48, than other parts of California, making it difficult to get homeowners to take the risk seriously at times, DeVos said.
“Apathy is one of our biggest problems,” DeVos said. He works to encourage homeowners to work on fire prevention as much as possible, because “fire prevention is the key to being a successful firefighter.”
Being part of the Del Norte Fire Safe Council can help with that mission.