Living With Fire
I write this from the desk in my house. A few days ago, it wasn’t at all clear if this desk and the house it’s in would still be with us now. I took the photo you see here from the deck of my house in the evening. Smoke lit up by fire, and not far away at all! That night I was up every half hour to monitor the fire’s progress. This all happened during a heat wave as well. I couldn’t open windows at night to cool things off because of how thick the smoke was. Some nights, it got down to 88 degrees F inside. Heat, or smoke to breathe, your choice. I chose heat. The cats were non-plussed!
I finished building this off-grid house fourteen years ago. Knowing it was out in the sticks, I did a lot to make it fire resistant. Much of the roof is cement tile, on top of rolled roofing. It has Hardi-Shake for siding. There are no vents for embers to get into and cause problems. Handrails around the house are made of steel. The house is sprinklered inside and has a fire hydrant and hose outside. When testing out a four-inch hose, I had to point it up. Pointing down would lift me off the ground! I even have decent clearance from vegetation around most of the house.
I used a hot Mapp-gas torch to test materials. FYI, Mapp burns at 3,670 F in air! Even the Trex decking sample did not sustain flame very well at all, so that’s what I used. In those fourteen years, we’ve had a lot of experience with fires and have learned some things. I was just told yesterday that firefighters are bypassing homes with Trex decks because they are considered too difficult to protect. Ug! When I built the house, keeping vegetation from being right up against the house was thought to be good, now people are saying they want 100 feet of clearance. Big ug! I think I did a pretty good job of making the house fire resistant, but I’m not emotionally detached enough to be able to look forward to seeing how well it does in a real fire. I also didn’t factor in what mandatory evacuations would be like. Law enforcement and the firefighters just don’t want you around! Someone trying to protect their home is considered a liability, or someone that probably will need to be rescued. What’s the point of having a mini fire station if you can’t/shouldn’t stay to use it? And I hadn’t considered the pressure from family and friends to get out. Knowing what’s really the right thing to do, gets harder in a fire. Consider your escape route. If you stay behind to protect your home, but eventually find that the fire is winning, do you still have a clear way out? I have a long driveway through the brush and trees. I imagine it’s no fun staring down a life or death decision like that.
Fortunately, the fire stayed away, and I can sit here with only a faint smoke odor and write. But now I have a new task, which is to figure out how to make this place even more resilient and able to defend itself from fire. I suppose I’ll be cutting some trees further back, whacking down some weeds, and figuring out how to “harden” my plastic water tanks so they are able to survive a fire. Perhaps there are shutters, like they used to use in California’s gold country, that can go over windows to secure those weak spots. Maybe exterior sprinklers? And???
Our climate is changing these days, and now in California, fire season is thought to be year-round. Fires have changed also. I’ve heard firemen describing them as hotter and faster. And it’s not just the wildland fires, but fire in towns with little vegetation, have jumped from house to house to house. Seemingly resistant houses, like those covered in stucco are no longer immune. With big or fast fires, the fire crews can do little but try to get people out safely. Maybe it’s time to consider underground houses again! Whatever, we need to understand the changing science around fire and buildings so we can create truly safe, long lived and resilient homes and other structures. Fire is not going away. We are challenged to learn how to live with it.
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Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.