For Howard and Laurel Hendrix, raging California wildfires are personal. In addition to teaching in the Fresno State English Department, the husband and wife team are active community volunteers in fire prevention.
“When you live in a forest, working toward fire safety is at the very least a matter of enlightened self-interest,” Howard said. “It’s also much more when it contributes to both the safety of the community and the health of the forest.”
Howard joined the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department as a founding member in 2000. Laurel, who shared his interest in protecting their home near near Shaver Lake, joined in 2003.
“I (like Howard) am actively involved in our property owners’ association, volunteer fire department and Fire Safe Council because we care deeply about our mountain environment and the health of our forest and community,” she said.
As Howard notes, he and Laurel joined other Californians who live in the Sierra Nevada mountains so they can look up at stars without the urban haze. They live in an area where “the mailbox is not within walking distance [and] taking out the trash involves a pickup truck.”
As volunteer firefighters, both Howard and Laurel help protect a heavily forested area of the Sierra.
They have had to fight fires in their area — mostly small ones, fortunately. Howard remembers a time when he was involved in fighting a fire in 2006.
“One of our neighbors, in cutting down a tree, took out a power line and started a fire,” he said. “Because there was a power line involved and sparking, we had to wait until the power company shut off the charged line and gave us the all-clear before we could jump in on the fire. It was frustrating to watch from the road as that blaze grew, but avoiding electrocution was a matter of safety, and we still got the fire out.”
The average age of members of their fire department is somewhere in the mid- to upper- 60s.
“Most of our fire calls over the past year have involved responding to burn piles that have crept out of containment lines in our tract,” Laurel said. “These calls aren’t particularly glamorous or exciting — inhaling lots of smoke, setting up hose lines and cutting line, usually in the middle of the night. We support Cal Fire on many of our local incidents, following the lead of the pros.”
In 2003, the Pine Ridge Property Owners Association was awarded a Smokey Bear Award for outstanding public service in wildfire prevention by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.
Laurel is sidelined right now as she is recovering from a knee replacement surgery earlier in the summer, but she will be a member of her local road rangers, who assist in traffic control during fire and medical emergencies. Howard and Laurel have also responded to medical aid calls. Laurel is trained as an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR).
“My EMR training even has come in handy on campus, where I’ve been able to assist students experiencing medical problems in my classes,” she said.
Laurel and Howard have been members of the 168 Fire Safe Council since its inception in 1998. Howard joined the board in 2000, and Laurel followed shortly thereafter.
Besides its efforts to keep its mountain and foothill areas safe, the Highway 168 Fire Safe Council also has participated in numerous public education projects, most prominently Southern California Edison’s annual Science Days event for local K-8 school children.
Howard serves as president of the Highway 168 Fire Safe Council and as president of the Pine Ridge Property Owners Association. His volunteer work in fire prevention goes back almost 20 years.
He is a member of the organizing committee and a presenter at “Fire in the Sierra” workshops at the Museum of the Central Sierra. The workshops will be given for the general public on Aug. 25, to government agency and public utility personnel on Sept. 13, and to policy makers from Sacramento on Oct. 11.
Howard has even incorporated his real-life experience as a firefighter in his writing. “Dragon in the Land,” a series written for several mountain and foothill newspapers in 2007, fictionalized a scenario about a disastrous wildfire in the Central Sierra.
Putting out blazes of another type — fires in academia — is something Howard recently addressed in his article published in Inside Higher Ed, “Trigger Warning: Academic Standards Apply!”
Laurel said she has seen some profound changes in student literacy over the past four decades. She notes wryly that digital technology has quickly altered the educational landscape, making some faculty feel like living fossils of academia. A full professor in English, Laurel joined the faculty in 1990. Her primary teaching and research fields are in late medieval and early modern/Renaissance British literature; she loves teaching Shakespeare.
A longtime lecturer at Fresno State, Howard is a published author of both fictional stories and novels and nonfictional essays and books, as well as co-editor on three books of literary criticism. He teaches courses such as popular fiction, medieval literature and advanced composition. Howard was a founding board member of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence going back to 1992. He was western regional director and vice president for the Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2000-06.
Howard Hendrix TEDx talk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nna5x3FluRo