Today I revisited whether or not I caused my house to burn. I do not believe that is true nor do area fire experts with whom I have talked. It would seem that some still do.
Early after the fire people implied or said directly that I caused my home to burn because I had trees and native shrubs around it. I had not completed the “official” fire abatement plan, nor was I required to do so. Nonetheless, we had spent a great deal of time over the past two years bringing our house toward the recommended criteria.
As it turned out, the area of our land that was the most sound in regard to fire abatement is the area that caught fire first. The fire was aggressive and hot. More than one person I have spoken with who fought the fire said it was indiscriminate. Houses were exploding from the heat of the fire alone. Fire and smoke and shrapnel and fear: It was a nightmare for those heroic men and women fighting it.
I have read and put down and returned to a brochure from the U.S. Federal Government that leaves me feeling guilty and confused. During the past two years I have worked hard to remove low-brush, take out dead vegetation, be respectful of existing native plants and focus my landscaping on using native plants and being water-wise. It is expected and appropriate to have what is known as a 30 foot “defensible space” around a home that is near wild-land. However the directions that this space can include single shade trees and ornamental shrubs but that they must be at least 15 feet apart is confusing. Beyond ornamental shrubs, which I can, and have lived without for over a decade, the directions prohibit planting clusters of trees that could be used for shade to reduce the amount of unwanted heat in the summer.
Regardless of how I consider these regulations and recommendations, I am left feeling like I somehow let my house, my family and my community down by not removing native vegetation and planting, “grass, ivy or succulents” around my house.
The most troublesome part of recommendations to me are in regard to how individuals should behave in the face of fire. One recommendation is to have 100 feet of pre-connected hose by your house. I am not quite sure how this works in February. The recommendation for action “if a fire occurs” is, among other things, to “back your car into the garage, close the garage door and leave the keys in the ignition….Close windows and doors to the house and close all inside doors. Take down drapes and curtains.” You are then instructed to evacuate if law enforcements says you should. If it is permissible, an “able-bodied” remembered of your household may remain to fight the fire. It is impossible to imagine what this means and how it should be viewed in relationship to people with disabilities–and to households where all members have some sort of disability or age-related “un-ableness.” The document recommends that “if the fire cannot be stopped and passes over your home, the safest place for protection is inside the house with all doors and windows closed.”
Perhaps I am confused and conflicted these days and the values and recommendations and requirements for fire abatement, reducing your carbon footprint, reducing the chance of introducing invasive species by focusing landscaping on native species and being water-wise do make sense. I will have to figure this out in the coming months as we rebuild our home in the rural-urban interface.
In the end, our fire was unique. It was far hotter and moved faster than most fires. Able-bodied or not, pre-connected hose or not, curtains and drapes or not, I thank God over and over that no one took refuge in their house. The glory and the incomprehensible thing about our fire was not the scale of the property loss or the years it will take the land to recover. What is the most incomprehensible it that no lives were lost.