By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
The Gasquet home of Rick and Diane Bennett burned to the ground Sunday, sparking some small woodland fires nearby.
In an effort to save the house, Bennett suffered serious burns over 30 percent of his body and was flown to San Francisco for treatment. No one else was injured in the blaze.
Bennett is well-known in Del Norte County. He was instrumental in establishing the College of the Redwoods branch here, he was principal of Del Norte High School and served as a Del Norte County supervisor in the 1980s.
I cant even list all the things hes doing in his retirement. Hes just always had a huge commitment to the community, said Stephen McCollum, a longtime friend and colleague of Bennett.
The house ignited when a burn barrel fire got out of control, according to Darrell Parlesca, Gasquets fire chief.
We got the call at 10:15 a.m. but it was pretty well involved when we got there. About a third of the house was already engulfed, Parlesca said.
Four people were in the home when the fire started, but only Bennett was injured trying to save the home he had remodeled himself a few years before.
The flames that burnt the house on North Fork Loop sparked 12 different spot fires near neighboring homes on the adjacent hillside. All were doused by the more than 40 volunteer firefighters who responded to the blaze.
One fire sparked by the blaze wasnt found until Monday morning, according to Parlesca. About one-quarter acre of nearby National Parks land was still being battled by parks personnel late yesterday afternoon.
Parlesca said the danger of such chain fires this time of year is why burn permits are not allowed.
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I know weve had a few sprinkles and some rain, but people have to be careful. Theres a cap on all burning and theres a reason for that, he said.
No other homes were damaged by the 12 smaller fires, Parlesca said.
Lost with Bennetts home was an extensive art collection. One of his first jobs was an art teacher at both the high school and the College of the Redwoods.
(See Fire, Page 3A)
He is also an accomplished watercolorist.
Youd love his stuff, its so loose and free - the colors are so clear and bright, said Virginia Brubaker, an art teacher at the college and friend of Bennetts for 26 years.
But its not just his skill and clout that make people respect him, Brubaker said, its his attitude and willingness to help others.
He comes at things positively. Other people bring up problems, Rick generally comes up with answers, she said.
To help keep Gasquet safe, Bennett rides through it with the Seniors on Patrol as a volunteer with the Del Norte County Sheriffs Department.
Hes also involved in a program to monitor Gasquets air and water quality.
He is a classic example of an individual who gives service to his community. And always positive, always trying to find a way to make things work, McCollum said.
Bennett is in stable condition at San Franciscos St. Francis Hospital burn unit and expects to be back in town within a couple of weeks, according to McCollum.
Hell just bounce back from this like he has from everything else in his life, his friend added.