Monday, August 31, 2009

Reflections on a fire

Now that I've had a chance to put a little mental distance between myself and the immediate prospect of losing my house, I thought I'd take a moment for some sober reflection about the Station Fire.

First, OH MY GOD THAT THING HAS GOTTEN MOTHERFUCKING HUGE!!! Just a couple of days ago, the Station Fire was the little fire, the smallest of four active fires in Southern California. The nasty one was down in Rancho Palos Verdes, and when they managed to put that one out in just a couple of days I assumed that the Station Fire would be short-lived as well. They were predicting relatively favorable weather. Hot and dry yes, but no wind. Wind is the killer. If you're in the path of a wind-driven fire, run. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Just take whatever is irreplaceable and go.

But the Station Fire was not -- and is not -- a wind-driven fire. It's just a plain old ordinary run-of-the-mill brush fire. The current conditions are not a worst-case scenario. In fact, they are -- to paraphrase Quentin Tarrantino -- pretty fucking far from worst-case. Which is why I am just shocked at how out-of-hand it has gotten. I shudder to think what we'd be looking at if the Santa Anas had been blowing for the last week.

Second, I am at once pleased and dismayed at how we dealt with an actual emergency. We had a plan, we executed on that plan, and almost everything went according to plan. But, man oh man, did we have the wrong plan.

I had a relatively sophisticated fire-fighting setup. I bought a gas-fired fire pump that could draw water out of the pool on the theory that even if it didn't actually do any good, it would suck less to watch the house burn while I was spraying water at it than watching it burn while standing by impotently. I also re-plumbed the main water feed to the house so that I could hook a real fire hose up to it as well. And I had fire-retardent gel and foam. I was as prepared as I could possibly be. It all worked more-or-less flawlessly. And it did make me feel a lot better, like I was doing something instead of just being a spectator. But in retrospect, I would have been much better off with a roof sprinkler and a truck.

The problem with brush fires is that they don't come with a program. You never know until after it's over whether this one is going to pass you by or bear down on you with wind-driven rage. In the middle of the broad scope of possible outcomes is a fairly narrow range where your intervention can actually help without putting yourself in danger. I think there's really only one scenario where homeowner intervention makes sense, and that is the case of the flying ember that lands on some tinder near the house, smolders for a while, and then burns the house down while the main body of the fire is still some distance away. And if you catch that early enough you can handle that situation with a garden hose.

I think if you're going to live anywhere near the mountains in SoCal you have to make your peace with the fact that your house might burn down some day and there will be nothing you can do about it. Accordingly, the best thing you can do is to figure out well in advance what stuff in the house really matters to you, and have a plan for getting that stuff out of the house, storing it somewhere safe for a while, and then putting it back, either in the same house or a new one that you build after the old one has burned down. Making that inventory was not part of our advance preparation, and that was a huge mistake. We found ourselves trying to decide under pressure what we wanted to save. And it turned out that some of those things -- mainly artwork -- wouldn't fit in our cars.

Happily for us, we were able to call on a friend who had a truck to come to our aid and help us cart away a few bulky paintings. And in the final analysis I think we did a pretty good job of triaging our possessions under pressure. But in the chaos, some really essential things, like the cat's litter box, ended up in the wrong place. If I had it to do over again, I would have made a written inventory of everything we wanted to save, which car it should go in, and done a dry run of packing to make absolutely sure it would all fit.

Someone asked me if I've had second thoughts about living in SoCal as a result of this fire. The answer is no, this fire hasn't changed my views at all (except on using Barricade Gel. I won't be doing that again.) In fact, I feel much better about living here now because the fire danger for us will be a lot lower for the next 5-10 years until all the brush grows back. Having the area around our house burn the way it did, in wind-free conditions, was the best possible outcome. That the brush would burn was inevitable (as is its growing back eventually). And I think it's also inevitable that our house will burn some day. We are surrounded by tall pine trees. That's one of the things that makes our neighborhood a really great place to be -- it's like living in the woods. But those trees can't keep dodging the fire bullet forever.

Trick is, there's no place safe on the planet. No matter where you go you have to deal with something, whether it's blizzards or hurricanes or fires or earthquakes or drought. And I guess I'd just as soon deal with the fires and the earthquakes as anything else. When it's not smoking and shaking, which is after all most of the time, this is actually a pretty nice place to be.


Darren said...

Scary stuff Ron. My thoughts are with you and Nancy and I'm most of all glad you guys are safe and sound. Hoping for the best. Take care.


Ron said...


Don Geddis said...

Sorry you had to go through all that, but I've loved your hour-by-hour series of posts. Thanks for sharing! And glad that it all turned out ok.

Publius said...

Did you ever install a roof sprinkler?
The brush has grown back by now.

Ron said...

> Did you ever install a roof sprinkler?

No, we moved instead. (But the new house doesn't have one either.)

I'm amazed that you remembered that.