‘I give Diana Credit for Saving Our Town,’ Says Stirling City Fire Chief About Humboldt County Firefighter

Diana Totten

Diana Totten [Photo by Kim Sallawy see more of his photos here]

As teams sift ashes in Paradise today searching for bone fragments of those who were killed in the deadliest fire in modern California history, not far away, residents of a much smaller town, Stirling City, return to their untouched homes after being evacuated for 10 days. They do so in part because of Division U Supervisor Diana Totten, a Humboldt County resident and one of the few transgender wildland firefighters in the nation. Totten and a Mendocino County man alternated the Division U Supervisor position–for over ten days, they traded off sleeping and doing paperwork while the other ran the line. At times they had close to 300 personnel under their direction battling the Camp Fire.

“I give Diana credit for saving our town,” Pete Cuming, Chief of the Stirling City Volunteer Fire Department, said warmly. Over the years, Cuming who has been chief since 1987 and been a volunteer firefighter since 1980, has poured a lot of love into his community. He has carefully restored the oldest house in town, built his own trucking business, and created a scale model of the old mill which he has lent to the local museum.

Cuming and the volunteer firefighters have to work hard to keep their small station running. “We raised all our own money,” the Chief explained. “We buy used broken equipment and build them back up.”

When the Camp Fire exploded around 6:30 a.m on Thursday, November 8, Cuming was already at work. “I own a sand and gravel truck,” he explained. “I was delivering a load about 8 miles away [from Stirling City]. As I was climbing up, I saw the smoke column. By the time I headed back for another load, it just a wall of boiling smoke…It was so dark—headlights only.”

He headed home and hooked up his RV in anticipation that he and his wife might have to evacuate.

Stirling City Fire Chief and wife in front of first house built in his town. 1903

Stirling City Fire Chief Pete Cuming and his wife stand between their 115-year-old home, the first built in town, and wooden sidewalks that are only slightly younger than the home. [Photo by Diana Totten]

Through the day, he and his fellow community members watched as a stream of vehicles loaded with belongings and occupants streamed from the burning communities below them and through their town. “All day Thursday, they were evacuating Paradise, Magalia,” he remembered. “They evacuated through our town. The gas stations ran out of gas. A number of cars were just abandoned here.”

Then, around 3:30 on Friday morning, less than 24 hours after the fire began, Cuming and his crew of volunteers received word that their townsfolk needed to evacuate. They hopped in vehicles and raced through their community blaring sirens and warning everyone to get the essentials and drive away. “I had hooked up our fifth wheel RV earlier,” Cuming said. “While I’m running around trying to get everyone out of town, my wife loaded up everything.”

But, though they were ready to flee, he and his six-man crew, as well as his wife, stayed on to defend the town.

Diana Totten said she thinks that Cuming, the local firefighters, and others were skeptical when she showed up to discuss how to defend the town.

“We were there with a group of dozers operators,” Cummings explained. “She introduced herself as Division Uniform.”

Totten remembers the incident well. She said that one of the operators said something about Division Unicorn–a reference to her transgender status. “I don’t think he thought I would hear,” she said. From then on she adopted that as the group’s name–they became Division Unicorn.

“It was instant chemistry,” Cuming said. “Diana loves input. She asks for input and then can make an educated decision.”

Totten said the chemistry was mutual. She, like Cuming, had been a logger. They both came from small communities they were passionate about, and they were both determined to save Stirling City. “It’s a cute little town,” she said.

“We were trying to build a battle plan for the north side of the fire,” Cuming explained. He said he and his men worked to give the two Division Supervisors “as much local knowledge as possible.”

Cuming credits Totten for coming up with a way of reducing fuel between the town and the massive, deadly fire racing towards them by clearing out dozer lines and backfiring huge swaths of land. “She was able to build a plan and her plan worked,” he said.

“We use fire to fight fire,” Totten explained in an earlier interview. “Those backfires are a very good strategy…Now the fuels are gone ahead of the coming fire.”

Several factors helped, Totten said. “The northeast winds were in our favor.”

She said, “We work with a lot of dynamics–the fuel, the weather, the topography, and the personnel [when using backfires].” Each of them have to have the right conditions for the backfires to work correctly, she said. “The biggest dynamic needed for success is having people who are really well trained. It takes hundreds of people all going with one goal in mind.”

Cuming and Totten also said that lower vegetation fuel load found on privately owned timberland helped. “We’re landlocked by Sierra Pacific Industries all around,” Cuming said. “Their land is very well managed. If this was Forest Service land, there was no way [firefighters] could have saved us.

Sometimes even managed timberland will burn hot like this near Stirling City.

Sometimes even managed timberland will burn hot like this near Stirling City. [Photo by Diana Totten]

Totten described the area as “checkerboard forest”–some of the area had been clearcut and others had had fuel reduction.

In addition to the reduced fuel load, Cuming was able to show Totten and Smith where an earlier blaze had come through the area. “We had fire here in 2008,” he explained. “A lot of those dozer lines still existed. They just needed to be cleaned of new growth.”

Totten and the personnel of Division Unicorn set to work clearing the lines and backfiring areas between the wildfire and the town. Cuming and the fire department volunteers were assigned structure protection for Stirling City. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to go to work because [Diana] did her job very well,” Cuming said.

Each day they met and discussed the plans. “We gave her coffee every morning and Diana would fill us in,” Cuming said. Totten would either be coming on her shift or getting off as the crews are supposed to work 24 hours on the lines and then have time to do paperwork and sleep before returning to work 24 hours later.

Cuming said all of Division Unicorn worked incredibly hard to save the town. “Those people were great,” he said. “The dozer operators, the crews, and the captains… .”

Totten said the people who fled in terror before the fire “will be forever changed and so will we…forever changed.” But she said the crew had a job, “We’re here to put something positive into something that is the most destructive thing you’ve ever seen.”

Every day there was new troubles to contend with. The winds were high, the vegetation was dry, and the fire was massive. “Ours was a…ten day terror,” Cuming said. “Each day we wondered, ‘Are we going to make it or not?’ I said goodbye to the house about five times. I’ve got my heart and soul into it. I’ve restored it in all its glory.”

For days the power was out and the town was silent as nearly everyone had left. “No dogs barking,” he said. “No motorcycles running..It was so quiet.”

He and his crew knew people in nearby towns that had lost their homes, their businesses, some maybe even had lost their lives–nearly 700 are still missing and 79 have been found dead.

“It was one of those events in your life that you measure everything else by,” Cuming said. “We will always know of the fire of twenty-eighteen.”

He added that he and his wife will also never forget Diana Totten who stood with them to save Stirling City.

“They lifted the evacuation order this morning,” Cuming said. Soon everyone will be coming back. The town will no longer be silent. “I welcome them home,” he said with relief evident in his voice. “We got power back a couple of nights ago…We’re sitting pretty.”

He added that the weather is changing. There might even be snow for Thanksgiving, he said.

He said he’s planning on buying Totten a bottle of expensive whiskey and coming over to visit her in Humboldt.

Totten said that it’s not just her and the crew by Stirling City that saved the town–it’s also the fire crews from across Humboldt County. “We’ve made a huge impact on how this fire has gone,” she said. “It’s something to be proud of that our small communities have made a difference. We come from small communities to help protect other small communities.”

Please note: Diana Totten and I have been friends for over 50 years. I am definitely not an impartial reporter when I write about someone who has not only given so much to help this community but has been a dear friend for most of my life.

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68 comments

  • What blessing in these times of loss. thank you firefighters… One and all…….. So good to hear some good in the midst of all this….. pray for rain!

  • Diana is an amazing person, her heart spans wider than that beautiful smile. If anyone has the chance to meet her do so, your life will be forever changed as mine was.
    Thanks again Diana, I will always remember.

  • This is a story that is full of love in the best possible way. From a man who loves his home and community to a woman who loves challenges and helping even strangers. Both facing a souless force of destruction and meeting it head on. Dang, it’s better than any Hollywood epic…

  • A good wake to story,thank you Kym.🕊🖖

  • It is reassuring to know that a fire this big is fightable, especially if you have a full team of HEROES to kick ass.

  • Awesome! ❤️

  • We all owe a debt of gratitude to Diana Totten and all the fire crews. Thank you for the things you do for us.

  • THANK YOU DIANA,AND ALL OF THE FIRE FIGHTERS FOR YOUR SERVICE!

  • Very good Thank you all

  • GREAT STORY!!! Thank you so much for reporting on this! The information in this story is a great example of how MANAGED forest lands around a city can reduce the fire hazard and making it possible to fight fires. YAY for the town and the firefirefighters and Diana!

    • The management of lands has to be done through human effort. If the only funding is for lands that produce industrial products then vast swathes of land will be unmanaged. Currently, regulations create industrially managed lands that don’t entirely degrade ecosystems. We could also use strict liability in which all provable externalized costs were recovered through the courts.
      Public lands have to be managed through public means. That could be accomplished through spending money, conscription or massive volunteer efforts. People who want to have unsuccessful management of public lands could take away funding of the agencies that manage the lands; use the failure to prove that government can’t be effective; and complain that other people have caused the problem.
      Or we could fund the Forest Service for the actual tasks of managing the landscape for the general welfare.

  • What a blessing she is.

  • Always known she is a blessing to our community, makes sense she saved someone else’s community too! Thanks Diana!

  • Bonnie L Caldwell

    Diana and the entire crew are AWESOME!

  • Someone give this woman a medal!

  • Great article… we had a close call at our place that was saved by her smarts and bravery as well. Thank you to all the fighterfighters 🙌🏼

  • Beautiful story Kym. Diana is truly amazing.

  • First, kudos to Diana AND her local team. As she said “having people who are really well trained” is key. Also Kudos to all of team “Unicorn”. It sounds just like Diana to not have a chip on her shoulder about her personal life. We could all learn a lesson there. I think that is why she is so well liked.

    I have also known Diana, and have been friends for many years, I was in the Redway Fire department with her father. ( he was older than me. Unlike Diana I haven’t set aside my vanity yet. Ha ha.) All firefighters know the joy of a good win and also know the pain of a crushing loss. All in all, being a firefighter can be the best gig of your life, I recommend it.

    To Diana, Ride the wave baby, you earned it!

  • Thank you to Diane and to all the firefighters who have fought like hell to reduce our own hell.
    Also a big thanks to Kym for the super write up article.

  • Thanks for honoring Diana Totten and all the others that have put their lives on the line in this horrible fire and in all the others that have come before and will come after.
    Happy Thanksgiving and remember all we should be thankful for.

  • The b&w image at the top is excellent. What a badass woman! Someone we can all admire. Thanks to all who serve.

    • Kim Sallaway is an extraordinary photographer.

      • Aw, thanks Kym. The photo works pretty well with your words. Your writing brought tears to my eyes. Like you, I am proud to call Diana one of my friends. She has done so many fine things, for so many people, for so long. She is nothing short of amazing, again, and again. This photo of Diana captures her sureness, her ability to instantly assess a situation, and respond. Here, no danger, recognition, and a smile. Gotta love that woman. I am not surprised that she is credited with saving the town. That sort of thing is part of her DNA. Diana would make a great president.

    • I agree. It is a stunning and beautiful picture.

  • Diana is an amazing woman. We’re so fortunate to have her here!

  • So proud of one of Humboldt’s finest.

  • Great story. I’m so proud of Humboldt County and the special people who live here.

  • Diana has come through time and time again She has made such a difference in so many peoples lives. If she were catholic she would be a saint. She is in my eyes anyway <3

  • Soooooo great to hear her getting the praise she deserves. What an amazing person!! I feel so very proud of our community and honored to have supported our local firefighters, &to see them helping other small communities is so heartwarming!!!
    Dianas TED talk was awesome too. I have always been so in awe of her bravery both personally&professionally.
    We are beyond lucky to have her here!!
    Gonna make a donation to tech&rescue in her honor today ♡

  • All of the love here is so inspiring!

  • Thank you Diana, Pete, the Volunteers and all the firefighters. You saved our small town. I’m forever grateful.

  • Diana Totten is not only a master firefighter, she is also a crucial member of our Search & Rescue Team, and has risked her life to save countless lives in perilous situations. She is fearless. and has dedicated her life to saving others. She is, quite simply, a hero.

  • What a great story, thanks Kym! About a town that isn’t a story, because it didn’t burn. Thanks to a living legend of firefighting and the great people she inspires. I hope this story gets out, the way yours do more and more.

  • 🦄 🙌 Honest, I was chopping just onions 😭

  • I hope the world will know Diana’s story someday…she’s astounding and beyond wonderful.

  • Thanks for the wonderful story Kim. I now know another thing that I will give thanks for on Thursday.

  • In gratitude,
    always in gratitude.

  • What a great story. I don’t know Diana or Pete or the firefighters or volunteers. But I am very touched and proud of all of them. Thank you all for your strong sense of community, taking decisive action in the face of adversity, and simply helping others. These are the bonds that tie us.

    Kim Sallaway: A truly amazing and stunning portrait!

  • Sherry G Skillwoman

    Great Story; Great Person; Great Crews!

  • Our community is so blessed to have Diana in it. She has the courage, fortitude and strength most of us could only dream of. And her comrades are awesome too .. Auroura, Kai, Pete, Brian and the crew. There aren’t enough accolades in the world that are sufficient enough to honor her. Thank you isn’t enough, but I hope you feel it, Diana, for you are a true gem.

  • The last time I talked to Milton, oddly enough at the Briceland cemetery, he told me of his car crash off the 101 at Benbow, when he came to, upside down in the cab, he said, “The best feeling was looking up and seeing Dianne’s face and I knew I would be OK!”

  • Proud of Diana and Humboldt Strike Team.
    Very hard work and a great understanding of how to fight fire with Fire.
    I’m glad everyone is home and safe.
    Great story and photo.

  • Gotta get that transgender push in. Gotta mention that as often as possible. It’s part of the mass media game plan. Politics, always politics. Because a wildfire (caused by corporate negligence and fueled by human negligence) really cares about manufactured genders.

    • The only reason to mention Diana’s transgender status is to hopefully help people like yourself understand that being transgender doesn’t change whether one is an extraordinary human being. And as you can tell from these other comments, Diana is.

      • Some people could care less about ones sexual preferences or the fact they are transgender. That’s a personal situation. In every news article, should we state people’s sexual preferences? Does it matter? She completely kicks ass and I hate to even make this comment, but it truely doesn’t make a difference.

        You make this point in your comment, “understand that being transgender doesn’t change whether one is an extraordinary human being.”

        • I agree that some people could care less. I pretty much care less, but I do appreciate knowing the personal part of Diana – it helps me to reframe and expand my thinking. The way I see it is that there is a bigger picture here. Diana is allowing the news media to mention her sex because this helps other transsexual/transgender folks who are fearful of coming out, to actually come out. It also helps reprogram societal paradigm towards acceptance of LGBTQ as a normal and conventional way of being/living. Jeez…the old stereotypes need to be confronted, and news media can help play a part. I don’t think people would even know that Diana is transsexual if it wasn’t mentioned in the news. They would only think (like I did the first time I saw her) – “WOW – a beautiful rugged- feminine woman with a super cool silver mane”. Thanks Kym, for writing such a nice and positive story – I need more positivity in my life!

          • I understand and if it helps others, I’m all for it. I’m just of the mind set that doesn’t care about your gender or sexual preferences. It really makes no difference to me. I shouldn’t mix transgender issues and gay issues. The gay issue is dead to me and the transgender issue needs more positive news.

    • But stories like this are reminders that the individual and their true identity are more important than bigotry, racism, discrimination and intolerance. Individuals shine; ugly generalizations are quite dim and dark.

  • This article brought tears to my eyes! So proud to count myself a friend of Diana’s!

  • It has been my privilege to how Diana for many years—she is an amazing person who has always put helping people first. Thank you again Diana and all the wonderful people you have trained and organized over the years.

  • ❤️❤️❤️ I hope to have honor of meeting Diana someday. Time and time again I am impressed by her dedication and skill. Thank you, for it all, and thank you, Kym, for sharing it.

  • Conscious Evolution

    I am always impressed when watching Diana work or educate or resolve. She is professional, smart and thorough. She is a true gift to our community.

  • What a wonderful blessing for you and the community to have Diana.

  • Thank you for saving our little town. This is where I was raised, so much history lays in that little town. Thank you Diana and the whole fire crew.

  • It takes a big Soul to do so much service to others, and she certainly is one.
    Thank you so much Diana and all those who have risked their lives and worked so hard to help those suffering. As everyone has used up all the well deserved adjectives, I can only add that I wish I was a millionaire and could reserve all the hotsprings in Norcal and send our firefighters there for a week of deep relaxation and unwinding.

  • Love to Diana! The world would be a better place if we all had hearts like her!

  • Diana is exceptional in everything she does.

  • Terri Hankins-Alberti

    Thank You Diana and all the firefighters who saved my hometown! I grew up in Stirling City, but lived in Paradise… sadly I lost my home and everything we owned. My heart is hurting, but I’m so very grateful our little mountain town still lives!

  • Fabulous story Diane & the entire crew are true heroes

  • Kathleen A Hapgood

    Good idea! Someone should make a movie telling Diana’s story. Thank you Diana for all you do.

  • Lets get a good soaking! The rain started today – hooray hooray! And as for Diana the firefighter, she’s very down-to-earth and “Real” (with a capital R), but what’s really Real about her is that beautiful and healthy silver mane on her head.

  • I know Pete and Do his wife very well and he would give his life to save others. I was in Paradise and fighting this fire monster with a neighbor and managed to save 4 homes and a dog named buddy. Way to go Pete and ALl that fought the worst anyone has seen ever. Courtenay.

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