DAYTON - The word contrast doesn't begin to describe the 20-mile career shift for fire investigator Mary Ellen Holly.
That short distance took her from the pine forest and modern mansions of Incline Village to the historic homes, mobile homes and sagebrush of the Dayton-Silver Springs corridor.
"My first day was Oct. 27, the day of the brothel fire," said Holly, fire prevention specialist at the Central Lyon County Fire Protection District. "I was on my way to Incline to pick some things up. I drove into Mound House and saw a fire and figured I should stop. A lady said, 'It's just the Sagebrush.'" I said, 'Is that all?' thinking she was talking about sagebrush. That was my introduction to the position."
Politics drove fire marshal Holly and the fire chief out of the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, she said. A week or so after she resigned, she got a call from Fire Chief Bill Driscoll at Central Lyon: "I hear you're available. I want to hire you."
Holly had an offer in Washington state but she chose Dayton.
"There was something holding me back. This is where I was supposed to be," Holly said. "I think what intrigued me was that (Central Lyon) didn't have a public education program set up in the schools. Fire education is my specialty."
Driscoll's fire prevention specialist left Central Lyon just as Holly resigned in Incline. Driscoll was drawn to Holly's track record and her ability to reach people.
"What she was doing there was what I needed done here," Driscoll said. "We have the same codes to enforce and the same building projects to approve."
Before Incline Village, Holly served as a deputy fire marshal in Eugene, Ore. She has 12 years experience in fire service, much of it involving public education.
In Incline, Holly had two inspectors working with her. Now she's a one-person fire prevention division handling inspection, investigation, education and public information officer duties.
Holly plans to make herself well known in schools and to business owners within the fire district, which includes Mound House, Dayton, Silver City, Stagecoach and Silver Springs.
She wants to meet soon with the principals at Dayton, Sutro and Silver Springs elementary schools and Silver Springs Christian Center. She's preparing to introduce children in classes from kindergarten to third grade about the Learn Not to Burn program offered by the National Fire Protection Association.
While in Oregon, Holly was chosen as one of 65 Learn Not to Burn champions in 1995.
Learn Not to Burn is a 12-week curriculum that teaches young children the 14 behaviors needed to save themselves in case of fire and to prevent injuries.
Holly would train the schools teachers to present the curriculum, but she is willing to appear in classrooms, if asked.
"My goal is to teach these kids about fire safety and then have them take it home," Holly said. "Then I want to get with seniors. They are No. 2 for risk with fire."
Holly said children and seniors are the most likely to die in fires. Those statistics came true in the Central Lyon Fire Protection District in the past two years as three seniors and a 2-year-old child died in fires.
Holly also plans to inspect every business in the district every six months to two years. Businesses with more hazardous activities will get more inspections.
In these inspections, she will gather information for a new computer program that will give firefighters information about every commercial building, active or vacant, in the district.
"The biggest thing that scares me is the lack of fire prevention," Holly said. "We don't have hydrants everywhere... Incline Village homes have composite roofs. Here they still have roofs that are all shake... The second thing that scares me is the older mobile homes (pre-1985). Most don't have smoke detectors and they have thinner beams (1-by-2-inch studs rather than the 1-by-4 inch studs found in newer mobile homes). But we are going more to stick-built homes. These housing developments are taking the place of what would have been mobile homes."
Until now, Holly's fire career was based in forest regions. But Dayton reminds her of the town she grew up in, Divide, Mont., near Butte.
The desert climate allows her to get back in the garden, not a very realistic hobby at Lake Tahoe.
"I enjoy working in the garden," she said. "The people here are very friendly and very helpful. But I don't like the wind. I didn't know the wind blew like this."