Alumni Impact: Kate Dargan

Alumna Kate Dargan (Natural Resources Management, ’89), who made history as the first female state fire marshal in California, speaks humbly of her career in fire service, but her passion for firefighting is unmistakable.

Dargan’s career began in wildland firefighting in the late 1970s, at a time when few women stood at the front lines. “Those were rough years,” Dargan said. “The world was not ready for women firefighters for the most part in 1977. Most of the women hired then did not make it their career, but a few of us did. A high tolerance for pain and grit got me through my first years.” Dargan’s interest in natural resources and the environment led her to Cal Poly, where she worked her way through college as a seasonal firefighter with Cal Fire and explored internships in land use planning and environmental services. Dargan’s love for fighting fires continued to grow, as did her career trajectory.

Dargan was a part of the San Luis Obispo unit of Cal Fire for many years before working in Monterey, Nevada and Napa counties. She became assistant state fire marshal in 2005 and was appointed state fire marshal in 2007. She didn’t stop there. After retiring, Dargan founded Intterra, a geospatial situational awareness and analytics company that specializes in software for firefighters to assist them on the ground in states across the country. And just recently, she accepted an advisory position to the White House focused on resiliency and wildfires at the federal level. “My interest in the environment and land use planning was a unique combination at the time, and while I was pulled to the problem of fire, I’ve always looked to the bigger picture of what is driving wildfires as they become more and more emergent to communities and ecosystems in California,” Dargan said.


While humble in nature, Dargan is ever cognizant of the role she has played as one of the first female leaders in the industry. “Being the first female was my everyday experience of work from the day I started until the day I became the state fire marshal,” said Dargan. “I felt the privilege of it, the honor of it, and the weight of it.” From working as the first female air attack in Paso Robles to being pointed at while driving the fire engine, Dargan continued to break ground. “It was exciting and exhilarating, and I have always worked really hard to live up to the expectations that come with being the first in many ways.” She acknowledges that she’s worked hard over the years to change attitudes, as many women have while working in male-oriented fields. “You have to do three things simultaneously: You have to be excellent at what you do, you have to fit in because it is about teamwork, and you have to acknowledge that you are different. But you can’t be too different. It is important to balance being authentic and being true to yourself as a woman.”Dargan said the complexity of the wildfires in California and nationwide can be daunting at times but remaining engaged and facing the reality of the situation is the only way to move forward. “It is important to tell people that there is a lot more suffering coming to our communities,” she said. “There will be community losses, ecosystem losses, and I worry about the watershed basins of Northern California running dry. I feel like I need to sound the alarm and warn of what is coming while also working very hard to connect to what we can do.”

Dargan remains entrenched in policy work as it relates to fire and natural resources management, both in her decade-long role volunteering on the California Fire Safe Council and in her future advisory position with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. For Dargan, the challenge is urging policy innovation to keep up with the pace and scale of the problem. “This is an opportunity to have a voice and lend my experience to the bigger picture of what the country is going to do while knowing that changing climate conditions mean that wildfires are going to get worse before they get better,” Dargan said. “We need to craft big-scale solutions through funding and creating policy."

She encourages future Cal Poly graduates to join the effort by being prepared to make change. “We have to make change now,” Dargan said. “Future graduates need to arrive with an ethos ready to effect radical policy changes and a well-formed network of peers. We need them to come with force and mass and their voices ready.”


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