From Forestry to Fire Chief

When Kurt McCray ('93, Forestry) came to Humboldt in the late 1980s, he knew he didn’t want a career that kept him inside. 

When Kurt McCray ('93, Forestry) came to Humboldt in the late 1980s, he knew he didn’t want a career that kept him inside. 

Growing up around ranching and logging in Southern Humboldt, he always appreciated the outdoors, natural resources, and outdoor recreation. He’s now the CAL FIRE Unit Chief for Humboldt, Del Norte, and Western Trinity counties, a job that he notes, ironically, includes a lot of time spent in the office. 

But his time at Humboldt, collecting and analyzing data and making decisions based on those analytics, prepared him for his career. “Even though I’m in administration now, my experience at Humboldt gave me the skills that I use on a daily basis,” he says. 

McCray graduated from the Forestry program in 1993, citing professors Jerry Allen, William Sullivan, Bill Bigg, and Carl Yee, as well as Forestry Department Secretary Judy Hampton, who pushed him to think for himself. 

“They helped me understand the science of forestry, and also the relations forests have with wildlife, water resources, and humans,” he says. “They enabled me to come to my own conclusions and justify those conclusions. I’m blessed to have had those people mentoring my understanding of forestry.”

McCray worked as a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry (now CAL FIRE) while earning his degree, and went on to work for the Pacific Lumber Company after graduating, a career move that he calls a “wealth of information.”

In 2000, when he had an opportunity to become a forester for CAL FIRE, he leapt at it—working as a seasonal firefighter had given him the fire bug. He held a variety of positions before becoming Unit Chief, in charge of all CAL FIRE operations in the area, including fire prevention and response, emergency services, law enforcement, aviation, and more. 

McCray works with a large team of knowledgeable and skilled workers who have to make quick, critical decisions in high-stress environments. 

“To work for CAL FIRE, one has to be a generalist—to know a little bit about a variety of subjects,” he says. “Humboldt gave me those tools.” 

The size and frequency of fires has changed since McCray was a seasonal firefighter, when the biggest fires responders faced were 50,000 acres. “Now we see that much burn in an afternoon. This is a challenge of a career and lifetime, to instill fire resiliency.”

There’s reason for hope though, he says. “Cal Poly Humboldt can educate and prepare foresters and land managers to tackle challenges across California and North America.” 

And those future problem solvers get much more than a diploma. 

“I also gained lifelong relationships and friendships at Humboldt,” McCray says. “That’s a gift many people don’t realize or appreciate while they’re in college. I received a great deal more than a college education.”