The world watched in horror this week as the Northern California community of Middletown, north of the Napa Valley, fell victim to a fierce wildfire on Saturday night. At this writing one person is known to have died, thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed, and 23,000 residents of Lake, Sonoma, and Napa counties evacuated from their homes.
Video of the fire's toll on Middletown, and the nearby communities of Cobb and Hidden Valley Lake, have spread through social media, outdoing video of this year's Cajon Pass fire (in which drivers were forced to abandon their cars to burn) for apocalyptic scariness.
Which means wildfires have really got everyone's attention, so it's a good opportunity to go over a few of the straightforward precautions Californians can take to make our homes as fire-safe as possible.
First things first: There's probably no reliable way we can make the California landscape itself less conducive to fire without causing undue environmental harm; many of the state's vegetative communities evolved to contend with periodic fires, and even the most destructive wildfires in native vegetation generally leave behind a patchwork of habitats behind that provide sustenance for important wildlife species.
Which means that our job is to make our homes as safe as possible in a landscape that will inevitably burn.
"Despite their best efforts, firefighters will never be able to save every home in a fire-prone area," says Richard Halsey. Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, has been working to educate Californians about living in fire-prone areas for decades. "Homeowners need to take responsibility for making their own properties fire-safe to protect both themselves and the firefighters who risk their lives to protect that property."
Halsey, a trained firefighter himself, points out that controlled burns and other programs intended to reduce the threat of fire in urban-wildland interface areas offer no guarantee of protection. He cites one controlled burn in which he took part, where a small fire in grass and other fine-textured fuels -- the kind that often regrow in the first season after a controlled burn -- grew to frightening scale with a shift in the wind. "The wind picked up where it had been very still,, and what had been foot-high flames were suddenly thirty feet high," recounts Halsey.
"We need to treat fire the way we treat rain, and other inevitable natural phenomena that pose a threat to public safety," says Halsey. "People point fingers at the dangerous landscape, and at firefighting agencies like CalFire, in the wake of a destructive fire. But there's no agency called CalQuake that's charged with keeping us all safe from earthquakes. Many of the houses lost in fires over the last several decades could have been saved if their residents had taken steps to make them safer."
Much of what makes a structure fire-safe is the structure itself: wooden shingles on roofs can catch fire if windblown embers land on them, and wooden or asphalt siding can carry fire from ground level up to those roofs. Decks and other wooden structures that aren't enclosed at their base become tinder that can carry fires to the structures to which they're attached.
If you're building or rehabbing a house in fire country, fireproof exterior roofing materials such as metal or tile can keep your house much safer when embers fall on them, and stone, brick, or stucco siding can do the same for your exterior walls.
But even if you're not able to redesign your house with fireproof materials, there's a lot you can do at minimal cost to dramatically improve your house's chances of surviving a major fire.
It's a concept the firefighters call "defensible space." Fire needs a critical mass of fuel and heat to sustain itself, and by reducing the fuel round your house -- and increasing the space between whatever fuel remains, including your house -- you can deprive fire of that critical mass it needs to keep burning.
CalFire recommends that homeowners maintain a "defensible space" with a 100-foot radius around homes and other important structures. Inside that radius, keep available fuel to a minimum by removing dead grass, branches, and leaves, trimming trees so that their lowest branches are at least six feet above the ground. It's also crucial to maintain enough space between living shrubs and trees in this area so that fires can't easily spread. Spacing out shrubs has the additional benefit of allowing space for firefighters to work on your property, should they need to. Cut grass, whether it's planted or wild, to no higher than four inches, and where possible use an electric string trimmer rather than a lawnmower, which can actually start fires.
Within 30 feet of your home, you need to get even more stringent about reducing fuel. Landscape inside this 30-foot radius with fire-resistant plants, and that doesn't necessarily mean a well-watered lawn: drought-tolerant groundcovers such as low-growing manzanitas and ceanothus can be quite reluctant to burst into flame. The key is being diligent about removing dead leaves and twigs.
It isn't just vegetation that provides fuel inside this 30-foot zone. Any random, theoretically flammable stuff stored outside for convenience's sake can be a hazard to your safety, as well as that of firefighters. Firewood stacked against an exterior wall is a classic example of a defensible space violation, but hoarded newspapers, lumber, insufficiently moist compost piles, painting supplies, and other such common items should also be moved either more than 30 feet from the building or into an enclosed storage area.
You don't need to establish a moonscape inside the 30-foot radius to be fire-safe: neatly maintained trees and shrubs are fine, as long as they are kept free of dead wood and other debris. Tree and large shrub limbs should be trimmed away from the house, and kept at least 10 feet away from chimneys. Shorter shrubs are safer than taller ones, deciduous trees safer than evergreens (but do rake and dispose of their fallen leaves). Pines, palms, and junipers are among the most flammable of landscape trees: they hold on to their dead leaves quite stubbornly, and pines and junipers exude flammable resins. If you have any of the three within 30 feet of your house, consider hardening your heart and removing them.
CalFire provides plenty of additional information on maintaining defensible space around your property.
It's important to heed CalFire's recommendations, as well as any additional requirements your local government might impose, to make your property less burnable. It reduces risk for yourself, your neighbors, and firefighters. And since 2005, property owners have been required by state law to maintain that 100-foot defensible space.
This promises to be one of the worst fire seasons on record, but we have it in us to make it less destructive -- and safer for those who put their lives on the line to protect ours -- by tending our own gardens. It's hard to imagine a better example of the importance of thinking globally and acting locally.