By Jerry Hurley
Special to Plumas News
I was not there to witness the terrific efforts of the firefighters who helped protect Lake Almanor West (LAW ) during the Dixie Fire. But I do know that their efforts were assisted long before they arrived by one community member who has been a key advocate in preparing LAW for an eventual wildfire intrusion, for 20 years.
I had the pleasure of meeting this gentleman, Dale Knutsen, back in 2001, while a Professional Wildland Firefighter in a prior life, before I became the Coordinator for the Plumas County Fire Safe Council in 2002.
Back in 2001, Dale was the initiating force behind the Almanor Basin Fire Safe Council, bringing together fire agencies, community members and corporations with a focus on better preparing the Almanor Basin for a wildfire, that not “If,” but “When” it comes.
In June 2002, Dale developed the Almanor Basin Fire Safe Plan, intended to serve as a general guide for wildland fire prevention and wildfire defense in the Lake Almanor Basin. He described the Basin including the forest conditions, what citizens could do, and outlined a number of proposed projects for the future to better prepare the Basin for an intrusion of wildfire. Projects including fuelbreaks, improved access to communities, communications, community cleanup projects and more public education.
While Lake Almanor West began with a fire resilient advantage in the development of the community with: increased greenbelts created by the golf course, sufficient lot size to create house separation that lessens the risk house to house ignitions, good road access and a good water system. But as a community builds and populates there is more that is needed to better prepare it for “When” a wildfire strikes.
Dale with the assistance of other community members, and support of the Lake Almanor West Board of Directors began efforts to become the first community in Plumas County to be a designated “Firewise Community”, part of a national program. Through mostly his own efforts, and some professional assistance from wildfire professionals, he developed a Firewise Community Assessment, which was a primary requirement to become a “Firewise Community.” The Assessment identified the risk from a wildfire and included an Action Plan focused on efforts to mitigate those risk. The LAW Action Plan focused on public education, mitigating threats within the community by better preparing the Home Ignitions Zones (which require annual attention) and mitigating hazardous fuel conditions on vacant parcels as well as on surrounding lands. LAW became recognized as a “Firewise Community” in September of 2009.
This is not to say that Dale acted totally alone. Residents such as Keith Crummer who unfortunately passed too soon, was a key partner along with others who participated in better preparing LAW for a wildfire intrusion. But Dale initiated the efforts and continually carried the torch, to better prepare the community with his continued his efforts. He led the charge: by involving community members, creating community awareness and education with articles in the Chester Progressive and community newsletters, coordinating annual Firewise Community days and initiating a number of projects inside of the community to reduce potential fire problems on lots with excess vegetation. In 2009, Plumas Corporation awarded Dale the Plumas County Stewardship Award, for his efforts in making the Almanor Basin more fire resilient.
Then in 2012, the Chips Fire started just up the Feather River Canyon from where the Dixie Fire started and threatened the Almanor Basin, including LAW. Fortunately, that time, control lines were established and conditions allowed for backfiring operations to contain the fire, preventing the intrusion into LAW that occurred this time. Reinforcing not “If” but “When.”
My last professional interaction with Dale was in 2013, and at that time LAW had just completed another hazardous fuel reduction project inside of the community on a thickly forested pocket next to the tennis courts. Dale Recognized that wildfires are a part of our life, that we live in a fire dependent ecosystem, and that while wildfire mitigation actions may or may not ever bear fruit, they are necessary, including some every year. For this purpose, Dale Carried the torch.
Dale once messaged me saying: “Maybe our problem is that prevention activities don’t make the evening news. No blazing inferno in the background, no heroic stands to protect a structure, no roaring aircraft overhead …. just plain ol’ grunt work cutting grass, removing brush, thinning trees, etc….” . Maybe it’s time his message gets more attention.
So, while some will say that LAW dodged a bullet from the Dixie Fire. I contend that along with the terrific efforts of Firefighters; one community member also played a significant role, over a long period of time, in helping those firefighters and the community of Lake Almanor West be better prepared for “When” the fire eventually came. I certainly hope the Lake Almanor West Board of Directors and community members recognize this.
Great Job Dale!