Comstock looks for opportunities as logging economy takes another hit
By TIM HEARDEN
Rose Comstock has had to reinvent herself before.
The 53-year-old Quincy, Calif., resident worked in retail before she moved to California's timber country about 20 years ago. She taught herself to be a safety officer for a logging company and became one of the best in the state.
Now as the timber industry has been in steep decline, Comstock is reinventing herself again. She just finished a six-week crash course at the University of California-Davis with the goal of becoming a federal or state health and safety regulator.
With tough times, she said, come a need to accept reality, learn new skills and plan ahead.
"Because I and several thousands of others have been through this, we were sort of wiser to what was happening," said Comstock, who moved to northeastern California in 1988 with her family. Her then-husband was displaced from his timber job in Port Angeles, Wash., as the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species decimated the Northwest timber industry.
"The difference now was that I had the opportunity to be more prepared for this change than I was in 1988," she said.
Comstock managed a clothing store in Port Angeles when "everything fell apart and I lost my career," she said. The family landed in Quincy, where she was a housekeeper until a logging company owner said he needed a "safety girl," she said.
"I said, 'I don't know what a safety girl is,' but he thought I could figure it out so he hired me," Comstock said.
That was in 1992. Her first task was to deal with an Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation appeal that stemmed from a fatality the year before. She didn't win that appeal, but hasn't lost one since.
Over time, she studied the ins and outs of health and safety regulations. Her office was "wall-to-wall books," and she got so adept at writing safety programs that regulators knew her by name. She worked for various companies until 1998, when she created her own firm with clients from Sonora to the Oregon border.
Her skills were recognized by the Loggers Association of Northern California, which hired her to do safety consulting work for its members.
One challenge, she said, was being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
"For me, I can't say that I found another woman out there in Northern California doing what I did with the loggers," Comstock said. "They're a rough-and-tumble bunch. You've got to earn your way, know what it is that they do and respect it. You cannot simply control everything. You can't put a safety measure on each step of each job that they do because it's an uncontrollable environment.
"When you have a gal like me, you better know what those risks are, understand them and how they apply it," she said. "Otherwise my work would have been (fruitless). They're not going to pay attention."
However, Comstock saw what was coming earlier this year when the slow progress of the so-called Quincy Library Group timber harvesting plan prompted the closure of Sierra Pacific Industries' small-log mill in Quincy.
"I know what it's like to lose a main employer like a sawmill and watch a community go down the drain and watch businesses close," she said. "I know what that is. I wasn't personally willing to wait around and see. I know what's happening (to the timber industry) and it's bad. I need to be able to expand my business if I want to stay in business."
Comstock sold her house and used some of the money to enroll in the course at Davis, where she honed her knowledge of some 14 different aspects of the safety-management field. While the classes dealt with a subject with which she was familiar, they could conceivably lead to a job involving different types of work besides timber, she said.
Whatever the field, she aims to help small businesses save money, improve efficiency and take better care of their workers, she said.
"I just looked at it with a glass-half-full kind of attitude," she said. "I think there's a lot of people like me that have survived a lot of different things and a lot of adversity. ... I know I have the capacity to do anything I set myself to."
Comstock said she wants to be flexible. She's willing to travel to somewhere like Texas or Tennessee if she needs to. She pays attention to current events, and she's always willing to take more classes to make herself more marketable.
"I know you have to be able to move, to be able to go, to be able to do a lot of different things to accommodate an employer these days," she said. "I don't think anybody can afford to be too picky."
Comstock said she understands what many farmers are going through. Her father was a trucker hauling potatoes from the Klamath Basin when the water there was temporarily shut off in 2001, sparking a national controversy and ongoing legal battles.
She said farmers should be politically active and hold true to their values and beliefs. Most importantly, though, they should talk with their family members and develop a plan for supporting one another.
"Families don't always do really well in rough, rough times," she said. "What do you know? Can you create something or invent something to get you by? For me, I had to put my energy and angst into a productive effort."
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Occupation: Safety consultant
Residence: Quincy, Calif.
Family: Four grown children