‘I give Diana Credit for Saving Our Town,’ Says Stirling City Fire Chief About Humboldt County Firefighter
“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.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.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.
- Diana Totten: A True Community Friend
- Fighting Flames, Saving Houses, Feeding Pigs…It’s All in the Job Description of a Firefighter