Many of the tiny towns in the mountains of Butte County were devastated by the Camp Fire — but not Stirling City, a former logging town about 15 miles northeast of Paradise and home to about 300 people.
The chief of the town’s all-volunteer fire department, Pete Cuming, credits Cal Fire’s Division U with saving the town.
“I told everybody I wasn't going to leave until [the fire] was singeing my mustache,” Cuming said. “I said goodbye to my place about five times.”
While residents evacuated, Cuming and his volunteers stayed behind at the picture-perfect red firehouse with white trim to do what they could.
That's when Chief Diana Totten arrived with reinforcements. Her leadership of Cal Fire’s Division U, which firefighters referred to as "Division Uniform" for clarity, made all the difference, according to Cuming.
Totten led 400 firefighters, water tenders, bulldozer operators and water-dropping aircraft as they built 25 miles of containment lines through the rugged terrain surrounding Stirling City.
“The motto of that group when they showed up was, 'We’re not going to lose another town.' And they didn’t,” Cuming said.
When Totten and Cuming met for the first time, it was dark and smoky and the task at hand seemed impossible.
“The first thing is feeling overwhelmed and the second thing is trying to pick out the priorities. And this town was the priority,” Totten said later.
As the Camp Fire thundered up the valley just outside of town, she decided to order a tricky 5-mile-long backfiring operation. The plan: to light the dry brush under the tree canopy with small explosives, hoping to suck up the oxygen and force the main fire back in on itself and away from the town.
Totten, who is from Humboldt County and has fought fires for 44 years, said she still thinks about her job a little differently from a lot of other firefighters.
“The fire service isn't quite built on magic and miracles — or, they don't know they are,” she said, recalling how she strategized and motivated Division Uniform crews that night. “I was explaining [to the crew] that we're going to have to pull off a miracle and you guys will be part of that. One of the dozer operators said, ‘OK, well then you basically are Division Unicorn.’ ”
Division Uniform became Division Unicorn. And against the odds, Totten pulled it off and saved the town.
She’s spent her most of her 63 years outside in the forest service doing what she loves. But it has come with a cost. Time spent away from family and the usual sacrifices firefighters talk about.
Then two years ago, she found out she had skin cancer. She’s currently prepping for another surgery to treat the disease.
“This might be my last fire. I don't know yet. I've got to do that decompression part and step behind a tree and cry for a while and then I can start thinking about it. Today I’m only concentrated on my job,” she said.
Before Totten headed for home, Cuming gave her a T-shirt from the little museum dedicated to Stirling City’s 100-year-old logging history. The tiny town that hung on through snowstorms and fires and the collapse of the timber industry will live on, thanks to the firefighters.
“She’s a lifelong friend now,” Cuming said of Totten.
Cuming also gave her a Christmas tree from the volunteer fire department’s annual fundraiser.
“I’ll think of you guys every time I look at it,” she said, noting that it was just the right size for her tiny cabin.
If this is her last fire, Totten says this is what she’ll miss the most: working with her fellow firefighters and pulling off miracles.