By Brad Bowman
After a wildfire killed two fellow firefighters in 1999, Danny Blevins, a Rowan County volunteer firefighter and longtime collaborator with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, (KDF), vowed to respect their loss by creating a safer environment for first responders and their communities.
This month he received the national 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Award in Reno, Nevada recognizing the thousands of people and the communities his wildfire mitigation projects have reached since that tragedy.
“It was the catalyst in my life,” Blevins said.” That really pushed me into learning all I could about wildfire prevention and suppression. The best way I can honor their service is to try and prevent that from happening again and educate firefighters across the commonwealth.”
It was an early April day in 1999 and Blevins, along with firefighters including Kevin Smith and Kenneth Nickell, responded to an afternoon blaze at 890 Island Fork Road as part of the Route 377 Fire Department in Rowan County. The fire rapidly got out of control, jumped the fire line and trapped Smith and Nickell. Both men died of smoke inhalation.
“It really set us all back on our heels that day,” Blevins said. “It devastated the whole community.”
Blevins has spent more than 20 years since securing grants for training and awareness, as well as developing numerous outreach and community events. He helped develop the Kentucky Fire Commission’s Wildland Firefighter Awareness Program, now a required course for state firefighters.
In 2018, Blevins collaborated with KDF’s Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Kessley Baker to plan the state’s first Wildfire Preparedness Day celebration. The Rowan County event had more than 500 attendees and involved KDF, the U.S. Forest Service, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The American Red Cross and local first responders.
“Danny’s energy and determination to contribute to his community are contagious,” Baker said. “It takes a strong person to really push systematic change, and he was able to accomplish that, with the help of Route 377 Fire Department, Kentucky Fire Commission, and many other local officials and fire personnel.
“After the tragic event of losing two firefighters, Route 377 and the entire area banded together to reform how wildfire was viewed through education and training. It is an impression that has carried on for over 20 years, with immeasurable benefits to the community. I am thankful to know and learn from such a remarkable community leader.”
Blevins was the first person to secure multiple grants for wildfire mitigation and education projects in eastern Kentucky, which educated firefighters and communities in their roles in preventing wildfire disasters.
Through his work with the Northeast Rowan County Fire Council, Blevins and his department assisted the small community of Lake Lewman in Morehead to become the first and longest-active Firewise/USA community in the state. Blevins’ training and expertise in 2014 also aided with the success of the Triplett Creek Watershed.
More than 1,000 homes in the watershed were assessed as part of a national project with the Chief’s Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership (CJLRP). The wildfire mitigation efforts included the construction of firebreaks on 60 acres and creating a defensible space for 34 high-risk homes.
Retired U.S. Forest Service District Fire Management Officer Jerry Wheeless has worked with Blevins for years as federal and local counterparts.
“Danny is a very persistent guy. He doesn’t take no for an answer,” Wheeler said. “If he sees something that needs to be done, he will find a way. He was a force to get things done.
“Danny is really a forward thinker. I took him to talk to other fire departments and said, ‘Let’s get this message out and show them what you are doing.’”
Chris Owens worked alongside Blevins as an EMT in Rowan County, and later collaborated with him when Owens became a U.S. Forest Service training officer for the Daniel Boone National Forest and the center manager for the Kentucky Interagency Coordination Center. Together, they developed the Island Fork Staff Ride, a learning tool at the actual site of the tragic fire, where firefighters conduct a field study and integrate lessons learned from the incident.
“Danny has been an example of leadership as far as the wildfire arena and so many other areas of training,” Owens said. “What he has done is impressive at the very least. There isn’t any quit in him.”
Blevins remains an active firefighter on the Route 377 Fire Department in Rowan County, a fire instructor for Area 9 State Fire and Rescue Training, and regional director of the Kentucky Firefighter’s Association. Blevins is also a certified paramedic and serves as Morehead Rowan County EMS director.
He was honored by the Wildfire Mitigation Awards program, established in 2014 by the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the USDA Forest Service to highlight the tremendous societal value wildfire mitigation efforts provide.