[Noozhawk’s note: Fifth in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. The nomination period for 2013 honors is now open.]
Dawna Ashton uses some impressive skills to help people: She’s a volunteer firefighter with the San Marcos Pass Wildland Residents Association (WRA).
Ashton’s parents raised her and her brother to think of others and to be able to handle themselves in different situations. At an early age she was tasked with making coffee at 5 a.m. for a local trail-riding group and with working the family’s three acres in Northern California. After her father died when she was 17, Ashton and her brother became responsible for all the chores — scything tall weeds (no weed wackers in those days) and learning to handle their father’s many tools. Measuring a mere 5-foot-4, Ashton could, and can still, haul 175-pound bales of hay.
Ashton has had a long and varied volunteer experience. An adult leader for 4-H for 25 years, she also volunteered for the California Department of Forestry (now named Cal Fire), where she met all the physical requirements and demonstrated such competence that she was offered a full-time, paid position. At the time, women firefighters were a relative novelty, so Ashton carried a small ammonia inhaler just so she would not be “the fainting, barfing girl” at bad car accidents. She never had to use it.
After five years of fighting fires, she was named health and safety director for the American Red Cross in Santa Cruz. In 2005, she relocated to Santa Barbara, where she held a similar position until 2011 when she was laid off as part of a reorganization of the Red Cross. Friends learned of her firefighter experience and suggested she join the WRA as a volunteer firefighter. She was welcomed with open arms.
Ashton is the only woman on a team of 12, all drawn from mountain communities. Her volunteer “job” dominates her life. She must stay fit, be able to carry a 30-pound pack and radio up steep hillsides dressed in boots, helmet, heavy jacket and pants. She must also stay current on fire shelter drills and fire behavior, and maintain her certified First Responder status that entitles her to perform CPR and administer first aid.
Currently, Ashton’s day begins with a 7:30 a.m. radio check-in six days a week. When a call comes, the radio squawks and she and her partner, Mike, drop whatever they are doing, grab their gear and race out to the small fire truck outside their home. WRA volunteers are often first on the scene of accidents on San Marcos Pass and fires on the mountain. Ashton always carries her radio — even to the bank. Firefighting days can be long and arduous: the recent White Fire near Paradise Road kept the crew on duty for more than 16 hours.
Ashton says she gets an inner feeling of reward every time she goes out on a call. She knows she’s helping her community in a time of need and protecting the place where she lives. She is proud that when there is an emergency, she can do more than just call 9-1-1.
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Volunteers enrich all our lives.
Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next Man or Woman of the Year! Click here to fill out a simple online nomination form. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation, Noozhawk and KDB, nominations are open until Aug. 30.
— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.