“I dreamed that we had a fountain on our roof,” she said. “We’d just push this button and out would come this spray of water, pssssssht, far up into the air and all over the house.”
We both laughed at the idea. We were acclimating to the Southern California weather after relocating from the cool dampness of northern Europe and were experiencing the punishing heat of August to October. Ramona is a hot place, and for some reason our home’s little microclimate is a bit hotter still. We’ve seen 100 degrees in February and had highs in the 100s for a week straight. Our local record is 117 degrees. It was not surprising that my wife, Diane Conklin, would dream of cool fountains. Having one on the roof, well, that was a bit odd.
We knew that we were moving into fire country. Joe, the builder and former resident of our house, was forthright about the fires that had raged through the area. He’d taken precautions, though. Our house was built on a large pad that he’d planned to be “large enough for a fire truck to turn around in.” He’d done some clearing. We were concerned about the rows of eucalyptus surrounding the house. I’d seen an Australian documentary in which people described how eucs would explode during a fire. Some of ours were within 30 feet of the house. “If you’re worried about that, cut ’em down,” Joe the builder told us.
Our house overlooks thousands of acres of Coastal Range wildland. Staring at this every day, particularly during the arid heat of late summer and autumn, Diane began to plan for fire. We were strangers to Southern California and needed to know what we were up against. She called the California Department of Forestry (CDF), and Fire Captain Ron Sarrabia was kind enough to come out to our place to assess our fire risk. We are perched on a ridge between the oak-lined canyon of Mussey Grade Road and the deeper, rocky Kimball Valley. Looking across the valley to the wall facing us, Sarrabia told us that it held a 30-year load — 30 years since the last fire. Load to a fire professional means fuel, which in this region of California means life itself. That which grows here burns. Fire in the California backcountry is an inevitability. Thirty years of fuel meant that when something happened, it was going to be big. He recommended more clearing. Diane asked about whether we should cut down our eucalyptus Sarrabia didn’t think so.
Over time, we cleared the land. We are sensitive to the need to clear with care so that the environment we chose to live in is not destroyed by our choice to be here. What is known in some circles as brush-clearing is known in others as habitat loss. We move d out into nature to enjoy it, not to destroy it. But here is the bitter fact about living in natural places: you must kill nature in order to live in it.
After some heated arguments about what to clear, we came to the following compromise: I would go around the borders of our land and mark what was to be kept. The rest would be cleared. Chamise is the most common chaparral plant in our area, and also the most flammable. For this reason it is also called grease-wood. It had to go. We thinned the sumac, scrub oak, and coastal sage (Artemisia californica). We kept our stand of mountain mahogany, our ceanothus (the native lilac), and monkey-flower. We paid particular attention to eliminating fire-ladders: paths by which flames could climb from bush to tree limb to crown.
In February of 2002 fires ravaged the town of Fallbrook. Forty-two homes we relost. A friend videotaped the news coverage. We repeatedly watched film shot from a news helicopter of houses burning on a ridge very much like ours. There did not seem to be much of a difference between the homes that we relost and the homes that were saved. Not only that, we noticed that the houses burned while the trees next to them — including eucalyptus — did not. Only the houses burned. Diane drove to Fallbrook and talked to some of the neighbors. She learned that some houses were saved because of the extraordinary efforts of firefighters and those who stayed behind to fight the fire themselves.
We also learned from a tape released by the CDF dealing with home protection in wildfire-prone areas. In addition to clearing, which creates what in their lingo is known as “defensible space,” they recommended other measures, such as blocking vents during a fire and boxing in eaves. Embers, it was claimed, would creep up into the eaves and start a fire. They also recommended tacking a sprinkler on the roof if there was time to do so.
We made a list of the tapes’ suggestions and laid out our plan. We would box in our eaves, put a door over our attic vent, and put a sprayer on the roof. We were going to get our fountain on the roof, after all. Diane arranged with Lars Mitchell (no relation), a local contractor, to mount one up there. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t cost all that much. But then, thinking about it, I realized it wouldn’t work.
San Diego County had recently been hit by the Viejas and Fallbrook fires. In each, the fire had been driven by the Santa Ana winds, which whipped the flames forward at up to 40 to 50 miles per hour. With winds like that, any spray from a sprinkler on the roof would simply be blown off of the roof and downwind. Likewise, any under-the-eaves conventional sprinkler system would simply have its water splashed up against the house over a much smaller area than it would in the absence of wind. I told Diane my belief that sprayers would not work in realistic conditions. “Fine,” she said, “then you figure out what to put up there!”