By Mary Andersen
After 33 years serving Santa Cruz and Felton fire districts, longtime local Dan Walters is overseeing the Zayante Fire Protection District. He succeeded outgoing chief John Stipes at the end of July this year.
“My main goal going forward is to educate the community on the fire risks that continue today and then to improve opportunities for notifying residents of emergencies in our area,” Walters said in an interview.
Walters has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1972 and attended local schools. He’s been here all his life save for a stint in the Army. His career in fire service began as a volunteer for Felton Fire in 1984 then as a seasonal firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), now called Cal Fire. At the City of Santa Cruz since 1988, Walters worked his way through roles as firefighter, engineer, captain, investigator, and deputy fire marshall. He served on the board of directors at Felton Fire Protection District for the last seven years right up until accepting the lead position with Zayante.
Walters says that his local connections are a big benefit. He knows the area and the people. And while the Zayante district was spared from CZU Lightning Complex Fire damage, he and his team are mindful of risks ahead and are intent on getting the word out. The district was fortunate that the fire did not jump Highway 9, but the area remains primed for more dangers particularly as we progress deeper into the fire season.
Going forward the focus is on prevention. “Unfortunately the math is simple. We have five fire engines, 22 volunteers, and over 1000 homes in the district. So the key is to work with people to prepare their homes now ahead of time to make it more likely that their house will survive another large event.”
What fire professionals in the area know, and was reinforced by the CZU fire, was that it’s not usually a large wall of fire that burns your house. It’s the creeping firebrands and embers that can be carried for a distance that initiate most house fires. Walters said that dirty gutters are the most common and the cause of about 50% of loss of homes. He recommends a 5-foot no-combustibility zone of gravel space adjacent and around the home.
The concern is evident in the number of residents calling to request inspections for hardening their homes against fire. Zayante has a chipper program, and Walters offers the example of a group of district residents banding together to clear their properties and roadway of brush. They created a small fire break, which will improve the ability for firefighters to get their apparatus in and for the residents to evacuate quickly as both often happen at the same time. As many saw, during the CZU fire teams from out of the area could be the first to defend a particular neighborhood making it all the more urgent that street signs and addresses are visible.
What should we know as we move further into the fire season? Crews are working on the station’s emergency air raid siren system. PG&E, internet, and cell phones can be unreliable in the Zayante district so the system is being upgraded and tested as a backup notification option in the event of an emergency.
Walters perceives that having spent his career getting to know the politics and issues of the county in his various working and leadership positions with other fire districts has helped prepare him for the job of Fire Chief. “I’ve had the good fortune to have worked my way up in a way that has helped fill my experience.” Welcome aboard Chief Walters!
Featured photo of Zayante Fire Chief Dan Walters by SLV Steve