Benefield: Camp Meeker man running to promote fire prevention
To mark his 39th birthday, Kyle Gift of Camp Meeker plans to take off running.
This is not unusual.
Gift is the guy who when he turned 38 last year ran to San Francisco to raise awareness for peace. The year prior, he partied by running up Mount Tamalpais calling for unity.
Since about 2018, Gift has been spending his birthdays running, carrying an earth flag and trying to raise awareness, and a bit of money, for different causes.
This year he’s running approximately 25 miles from the southern edge of Occidental to the top of Pole Mountain, where a fire lookout has been perched since 1981.
“On my birthday I like to think outwardly,” he said.
Despite a number of these grassroots fundraisers under his belt, this one feels different, he said.
“My latest run is being way more specific than I have ever been,” he said.
He’s running for his own backyard.
He’s trying to raise funds to help support fire prevention and suppression efforts.
By that, he means helping clear masses of underbrush that for decades have built up on the forest floor. And in the rugged terrain of Camp Meeker and nearby Occidental, it’s no easy task.
“There is dense underbrush, and with illness like sudden oak death, this scenario has kind of snowballed,” he said. “There is a really a danger to my community. If anything were to happen here in terms of fire, there won’t be anything left.”
Although unfamiliar with Gift’s specific plans, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls is supportive.
“There is definitely a need,” he said.
And that’s when Nicholls gave me a brief tutorial about what it means to clear underbrush and fire fuels — and how important the work is.
Surface fuels are the grass, logs, debris and brush that are on the ground. Ladder fuels are the shrubs and small trees that provide a way for flames to climb into the tree crowns.
And when that happens, dynamics change dramatically in firefighting, Nicholls said.
“Short flame lengths, 3 to 5 to 8 feet tall, our firefighters can go direct. But once we get into a fire that gets into the tops of the trees, it’s a whole different fire,” he said. “A crown fire in the tops of the trees is a dangerous, fast-moving fire.”
So anything that can keep ground fires from becoming crown fires is good.
But these are the forests of Camp Meeker we are talking about. There is a lot of fuel out there.
As of Friday afternoon, Gift’s GoFundMe account had about $4,000 toward his goal of $10,000, which he admits was kind of a randomly selected target. Even with his years of experience raising money, he’s never done anything like this particular plan before.
He’s thinking the funds can go toward chipper rentals, or tree crews, or green waste bins.
His day job includes land management on a local ranch and creating defensible space around the property. He’s open to ideas on how to do it in his neighborhood.
“What I see with the first stab is getting the big bulky stuff out, between people’s homes or on the roadside, and then rent chippers,” he said. “Second step is to lop and scatter. You can’t get rid of all the material, it would be a horrendous job, but you get the big bulky stuff and break it down.”
He wants his neighbors to tell him what they need and then find a way to provide it.
“I definitely want this to be an open forum of this community to give their two cents,” he said. “People that live out here like their privacy, but I desperately believe that we need community as well.”
And he plans to enlist the experts, too.
“What are the areas that the volunteer fire department are most worried about? I want to help you. These are just good neighbors who want to do good for the community,” he said.
‘A force for good’
So how did a guy who grew up in San Francisco dreading school fitness runs around the block end up planning a run 25 miles — the final 8 of which are basically straight up a mountain?
“It’s what I do. I found my connection, my temple, what I do spiritually. … This is how I get the negative stuff out of my life,” he said. “I’m obsessed, doing this stuff all the time, so why can’t I do this as a force for good?”
So he runs around Camp Meeker. He runs around Occidental. He runs to Monte Rio.
If he’s training for something big, he sometimes runs twice a day. And also, if in training, he carries the earth flag even when he’s just jogging.
It’s a way to practice how to efficiently hold it, but it’s also a pretty good message, no matter the day.
“If I’m practicing again and having the flag out again, people say ‘Oh, what are you doing this time?’” he said.
It gives him a chance to talk about his plans.
Neighbors, the same folks he’s trying to help, probably think “this guy’s got a few screws loose,” he said.
Those who Gift describes as “real runners” probably feel the same way.
“There are so many different people out there who could do it much better,” he said.
Gift said he’s driven by a desire not to be fast or first, but to be a good neighbor and to try to help.
“This is my stab at it.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)