Kai Dalgleish, 33, took a break last month from desk work as a software engineer in southern Oregon to dig for smoking roots in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and put out hot spots on steep, remote slopes near Cazadero.
Peter Nelson, 37, an American Indian Studies professor at San Diego State, also put in time on the Walbridge fire, taking three-day shifts on the fire line between teaching remote classes from his new home in Santa Rosa.
Environmental educator Katja Svendsen, 47, had grown increasingly intrigued by the fallout from flames on the landscape through three years of leading hikes in wildfire-scarred Sonoma County parks. She landed on the same hand crew as Dalgleish and Nelson ― all relative rookies involved in a new bid to spread fire knowledge and experience among everyday civilians.
They were among more than three dozen people who recently rotated through two weeks of duty on the 55,209-acre Walbridge fire, part of a growing volunteer force being trained in basic wildland firefighting. The main purpose: to expand the know-how needed to conduct more of the prescribed burns that experts say will be needed to stem catastrophic fire risk in California and across the rapidly warming western United States.
Their deployment in the forested hills west of Healdsburg came as part of a monthlong battle to tame an active wildfire. They were plugged into the incident as temporary employees of the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District, testing a model organizers hope will be replicated in the future for expanding backup ranks amid increasingly frequent wildfire emergencies.
It may be the first such deployment of its kind in the nation.
“It’s not unachievable that there could be 300, 400 people that could be trained and available for this kind of work,” said hand crew member Joe Plaugher, 29, a Santa Rosa-based field representative for Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “You could easily see a few hundred people in the community that were basically just in reserve for an incident and that could be utilized ― and not just in the way.”
Though not employed for the initial firefight, where professional crews faced down flaming fronts on high-elevation ridgetops at the peak of the wildfire’s growth, the group performed critical mop-up from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14, digging lines in rough terrain, chasing down skulking flames and rooting out underground patches of heat. They worked 12-hour days, sometimes in triple-digit temperatures, and were generally covered in dirt and ash.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said crew member Devyn Friedfel, 29, a natural resource specialist with Pepperwood Preserve, which started using fire on its 3,200-acre property in the Mayacamas Mountains in 2014. “We were working on steep, steep, steep slopes and carrying a 45-pound pack, and carrying a tool.”
But the reward is profound, all said, especially given the heavy toll of destructive wildfires in the area.
Friedfel, who was evacuated from his Forestville home for much of the Walbridge, noted that the alternative “was sitting on a friend’s couch, constantly getting updates from Twitter,” thinking, “Why do I have all this training?” and wishing he could be deployed.
The crew was led by fire ecologist Sasha Berleman, director of the 3-year-old Fire Forward program for Audubon Canyon Ranch, an environmental conservation and education nonprofit. The group helped found the Good Fire Alliance, a cooperative of North Bay landowners and land managers seeking to expand the use of prescribed burning and other techniques to control fuel build-up, eliminate invasive plants and pests, encourage biodiversity and restore wildlife habitat.
It’s “neighbors helping neighbors,” but on an a fairly large scale, given growing interest and passion for the subject, said Berleman, who has a doctorate in fire ecology from UC Berkeley and is a seasonal U.S. Forest Service firefighter.