Sunday, August 30, 2009

Living through a brush fire: some lessons learned

This post is the one that I wish someone else had written that I could have read before yesterday.

The first thing you need to know about brush fires is that it's all about the wind. If the wind is blowing, you're screwed. There is nothing you can do but pack your stuff and the hell out of Dodge. I learned this from an acquaintance who lost his house in another fire a few years ago. He's a volunteer firefighter, so he has all the right training and equipment. He did all the right things. He had pumps and hoses and a chainsaw to cut away the wooden deck outside his house. The fire came to with a few yards of his house and then stopped. He thought he was safe, since there was now a wide zone between him and the fire that was depleted of fuel. The same brush can't burn twice, right?

Wrong. The wind shifted, and what had previously burned as a relatively controlled slow-moving fire, now re-ignited as if it was a blast furnace. His house pretty much just went "poof", and he was lucky to escape with his life. The heat from the fire blew out the back window of his truck and lit him on fire as he was heading down the hill. Fortunately, there were firefighters at the bottom who were able to extinguish him before turning their attention to their own truck, which had also caught fire. And yes, I saw photos. He documented everything quite meticulously.

Miraculously, although the weather has been unseasonably hot and dry (and that's saying something in August in Southern California) we have had virtually no wind. That's been horrible for air quality, but it's almost certainly the only reason more houses haven't been lost.

So last year I decided to get better prepared for the fire that I knew would inevitably come (though I wasn't expecting my timing to be quite this good). I explored various options, including a roof sprinkler, and a gas-fired pump that draws water from the pool. After consulting with a local fireman we decided to go with the pump. We also got a supply of foam and Barricade Gel. Yesterday I was able to put all that stuff to the test.

In retrospect I think we got it exactly backwards. If I had it to do over again I'd go with the roof sprinkler and forego the pump. The problem is that you have to be there to man it, and you have to be there when the fire arrives. And, as we found out the hard way yesterday, the same fire can arrive more than once.

The gel and foam turn out to be pretty useless also. The foam in particular just seemed to dissolve on contact with whatever it landed on. Five minutes after being applied there was no hint it had ever been there. The Barricade Gel, on the other hand, works as advertised. It leaves everything covered with a 1/4-inch thick layer of slimy goo. Word to the wise: wear leather work gloves when you apply this stuff, not because you need the protection, but because it's incredibly slippery, and if it gets on your hands you can't grip anything any more.

The trouble with the gel is it only lasts for an hour or two, so your timing still has to be pretty much dead-nuts on. It also leaves a horrible mess behind. Our house is now covered with a slimy film of residual gel, and I have no idea how we're going to get it off.

A roof sprinkler system has its own problems, of course. If you have eaves it won't do anything to protect the sides of the house. Of course, you can install sprinklers all around the eaves as well, but that starts to get expensive and/or unsightly. PVC will melt in a fire, so you need to use copper or galvanized steel for the plumbing. But the nice thing about it is that it's fire-and-forget (so to speak). You turn it on, evacuate, and whenever the fire arrives everything will be nice and soggy. It won't protect against a wind-driven fire (nothing will) but it will help prevent flying embers from igniting your house, which is pretty much all you can do. If mother nature decides she wants your house she will take it. The only way to be absolutely safe is to build out of concrete (and even then the radiant heat from a really hot fire can penetrate the windows and light the interior on fire).

One last thing to keep in mind if you decide to go with gel: it's seriously hard work to apply. You can do it with a garden hose, but that's very slow. We used the gas-fired pump, and let me tell you, wrangling a 100PSI fire hose make you feel very manly, but it is seriously hard work. By the time I was done applying the gel I was at the limits of my physical endurance in my upper body. Granted, I'm not in great shape. Most of the exercise I get above the waist is from typing. But I think I'm not alone in this. Oh, also, buy four times as much gel as you think you need.

There are two more drawbacks to the gel: its expensive, and it has a limited shelf life. You have to shake the containers every six months, and even then it only lasts a couple of years.

Of course, the best way to prepare for a brush fire is to buy a house far away from brush.


Ross said...

What about building from non-flammable materials? I know it's more expensive (like 100% more expensive) but I remember two stories about CA fires where the only house standing was the house that had a steel frame, adobe tile roof, fiberglass/concrete drywall, and all of the other things you need to do differently.

Not that you've been in a situation where it was practical to do anything like this. But I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

Ron said...

Turns out building a non-flammable house is not enough. If you have windows, a hot enough fire will ignite the interior of the house through radiant heat. You need steel shutters to stop that from happening.

Of course, it's better to build non-flammable than not. But the best weapon against a wind-driven fire is a good insurance policy.

Robert said...

Ron, I follow your blog in Google reader and I've been reading your posts as you went through your ordeal.
I'm glad that your house is still in one piece.

Did the fires cause any part of you to question whether living in California is really worth it?

You should come move to Boston :)

PS - I enjoy the blog posts :)

Ron said...

> Did the fires cause any part of you to question whether living in California is really worth it?

I've been questioning whether living in (Southern) California is worth it long before the fire :-) We knew this was coming; it was a question of when, not if. We got very lucky that the fire came when there was no wind, otherwise it could have turned out very differently. As it stands, this fire was a major pain in the ass, but nothing worse than that (and actually, the worst part is having to clean up the Barricade gel that I sprayed all over the house. That stuff is nasty! Should come with a warning label.)

What really has me questioning living in SoCal -- or anywhere else in the Southwest -- is that water will continue to get scarcer and scarcer. We're on water rationing already, and things will only get worse. Trick is, it's not clear where we could go that would be better. Everywhere has *something* annoying that you have to deal with, whether it's winter or earthquakes or fire (or incompetent politicians).

> You should come move to Boston :)

Tell me again in January when you're digging out from the latest Nor'easter and it's 70 degrees out here :-)

BarricadeFireman said...

Hi Ron,
This is John from Barricade Gel. I have been a professional firefighter for over 26 years and I am the developer of the first fire gel. I am glad to hear that your house is safe. I can appreciate the challenges that you have encountered with our gel but please, keep in mind that it has been credited with saving thousands of homes. We have many testimonials from homeowners who have used it successfully. There are solutions to all of the difficulties that you mentioned including ease of application and cleanup , maintenance of the gel coating after proper application and clean up after the threat of fire is gone. I will be glad to go over these with you. We also have representatives in California that will be happy to assist. Give me a call toll free at (800) 201-3927 or email me at and I'll be happy to provide further information. on this important issue! Thanks and remain looks like fire season is cranking up again.

Ron said...

My complaint is not with your product, only with your marketing. Your literature gives the impression that cleanup is easy. It's not. It's a major chore. Certainly that's a small price to pay for potentially saving one's house, but you still should tell people up-front that cleanup can be a huge problem, especially if the product is allowed to dry (which is not unusual in the hot and dry conditions where fires tend to happen). If I had known that ahead of time I would have done things differently.

Just to give some perspective on how hard cleanup actually is, we have yet to find a professional cleaning company willing to take on the job. Even the company that put the flyer on our doorstep this morning, a company that specializes in post-fire cleanup, won't touch the stuff. People need to know this up-front. If nothing else, they need to know that, at best, it's going to take a HUGE amount of water to get it off. Where fires are plentiful, water tends to be scarce.

To be clear: I think the product is excellent. I definitely believe that it could make the difference between losing one's house and not. The folks in Big Tujunga Canyon who lost their homes probably wish that they had my problem. But your promotional materials make it sound as if applying it has few if any negative consequences, and that is simply not the case. And if I'd known that I almost certainly would have waited for the fire to get a lot closer before I pulled the trigger.

Thanks for posting your comment. I appreciate your being so proactive. I will try to give you a call tomorrow because we will definitely need some help. Feel free to contact me directly as well if you like. My email address is on my home page: