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Cazadero neighbors didn’t wait for help, but fired up the ’dozers during the Walbridge fire

Nothing, including emergency help, comes quickly to Cazadero.

So when lightning in mid-August ignited flames in dense, steep forest near the self-reliant and happily isolated town six long miles from Highway 116 between Monte Rio and Duncans Mills, locals did something extraordinary and yet for them quite commonplace.

Dozens of them fired up bulldozers and headed into the rugged, thickly vegetated hills north of town to cut breaks as a defensive barrier between greater Cazadero and what would become known as the Walbridge fire.

Clearing brush and small trees near the roaring forest fire “gets a little unnerving,” allowed Jeff Parmeter, whose pioneer Cazadero logging, construction and excavation family has been instrumental to the community effort to save itself and points south from the wildfire.

But when problems large or small arise, Parmeter and his neighbors in the historic logging town, renowned as the home of the 33-acre Cazadero Music Camp for kids, are not the the sorts to sit and wait for others to come do the hard and dangerous and dirty work.

“If Cal Fire is busy somewhere else and can’t get here,” said Parmeter, 51, “the community just gets on it.”

The list of names of those who have risen to the town’s defense with their business or ranch earthmovers and water-tank trucks reads like a Cazadero Who’s Who. Among those names: Radtkey, Canelis, Dahl, Cheatham, Landeros, Gevas, Chambers.

The approximately 60 people taking turns operating the dozers have been sustained by the cooking of family members and the owners of Cape Fear Cafe in Duncans Mills, Raymond’s Bakery in Cazadero, Cafe Aquatica in Jenner and other purveyors.

Throughout and beyond the town founded alongside Austin Creek in 1869 there’s a palpable sense of gratitude for what the Cazadero neighbors did to defend against the fire spreading toward homes and towns of the lower Russian River.

“They didn’t have any ground support, they didn’t have any air support,” said Don Grider, who allowed the dozers to approach the fire line on his property, which is on Old Cazadero Road and borders East Austin Creek.

On Cazadero Highway, which runs along Austin Creek and links Highway 116 to Fort Ross and King Ridge roads, someone placed on the shoulders black-on-yellow signs that read, “Thank you! Caz Dozer Crew.”

From behind the counter at the Cazadero General Store, Michelle Hermes said, “I tell you, this town really comes together.”

Working across the road was Don Berry, owner of the town’s hardware, supply and auto-repair shop. Reflecting on his family’s history there, he shared that his great-grandfather named the place Cazadero — Spanish for hunting ground — in 1888.

“We’re like a family,” Berry said of the souls who inhabit the town.

Cal Fire division chief Ben Nichols said on Thursday, “I’m super-impressed with those guys.”

He noted that the Parmeters and some of his fellow Cazadero-area residents have contracts with Cal Fire that allow them and their equipment to be called into action if fire crews need a hand. Jeff Parmeter and other members of his family had not received a call from Cal Fire early last week, Nichols said, but set out to cut a firebreak “because they recognized the danger to their community.”

Subsequently, Nichols said, Cal Fire’s contracts with the Parmeters and some of their neighbors were activated and they were authorized to take their dozers farther in toward their area’s portion of the Walbridge fire.

Nichols said it is important for any owner of a bulldozer or water truck or other piece of equipment that could be useful in a fire to sign up in advance as a contractor to Cal Fire.

“It’s a call-when-needed contract,” he said.

Jeff Parmeter said the volunteer crew has used the blades of 13 bulldozers to cut a break between Cazadero and the fire ignited by lightning in the area of Grey Creek, the headwaters of Austin Creek and the hard-to-get-to the ecological preserve north of town known as The Cedars. Today the Walbridge fire has spread to more than 55,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of buildings.

It was of great benefit, Parmeter said, for him to have grown up in those hills.

“Knowing the area and knowing the weather that goes through here, we kind of know where the hot spots are going to be,” he said.

Parmeter, whose family has been prominent in and around Cazadero for five generations, will be pleased if the current destruction in forests with limited or no logging will demonstrate the wisdom of taking down some of obstacles confronted by loggers who would thin and manage potential fire fuel, and keep currently overgrown and inaccessible logging roads clear.

“I hope people will open their eyes that cutting a tree maybe isn’t so bad,” he said. “It’s like maintaining your garden.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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