It’s a good thing I specialize in fireproof housing because fire seems to be following me wherever I go! A few months before completing our California mud house in December of 2012, my property was badly damaged by an immense wildfire that had consumed over 40,000 acres of the Mendocino National Forest that bordered it. As much as I love sitting in front of a nice campfire, it’s no fun at all to watch a fire when it’s about to torch my property, along with all of my non-earthen buildings and worldly possessions. How would you feel if your homesite was located on the top of this mountain ridge where mine was?
Fortunately, I had this large pond constructed on my property that helped the small army of firefighters to protect all of the structures that I had painstakingly built, as well as the rest of the houses in the neighborhood:
To bad it wasn’t enough to prevent our beautiful forest from becoming a singed mess with lots of dead trees.
People need to face the fact that (especially in arid zones), fire is a natural and innate part of the ecosystem and, rather than trying to suppress them (which merely causes a massive buildup of dead wood to accumulate thus increasing the risk and severity of future fires), it’s important to learn to live with them. Although it is certainly helpful to clear the surrounding brush, by far the best solution is to build non-combustible structures. Still, it’s not always practical or feasible to build every structure that way. After leaving my beloved (but now charred) forest hideaway behind and moving to Costa Rica to make a fresh start, the first thing we did in the process of setting up a new homesite on a virgin piece of land, was build a water tower, shed, generator house, and outhouse…all out of wood. As if I wasn’t already traumatized enough by the 2012 fire, no sooner had I finished building them when another wildfire passed through.
I was extremely lucky because I just so happened to visit the property on a Sunday–my one day off–when I noticed smoke billowing from an adjacent parcel. I’m guessing some fool tossed a lit cigarette butt from their car because upon further investigation, most of the parcel was already burned up. At that point, in a panic, I hurried over to see if it had spread to my parcel. Sure enough, when I arrived at the homesite, I was horrified to encounter a great wall of fire burning the tall grasses stretching from the water tower to my shed and beyond, less than 30 feet away!
Luckily for me, I had recently created a narrow road-like clearing (extending from the tower and passing just behind the shed), in the process of burying some water/irrigation lines (with three spigots along the way) to water all the fruit trees I planted. This clearing served as a slight firebreak and gave me just enough time to get my two garden hoses out of the shed, hook them up to the spigots, and start putting out the fire while calling my friend Arbin for backup. Thankfully, Arbin (along with his wife Tricia who took the above photo, a couple of brothers and a neighbor), arrived in less than 10 minutes and helped me extinguish the fire right before it crossed the firebreak and helped save all the structures just in the nick of time!
Thank heavens the structures were saved but at least 90% of the property was completely scorched. Other than losing a few really nice fat trees, and scaring the crap out of me, the fire wasn’t all bad in that it cleaned up the property by clearing all the tall grasses which made it a bit difficult to walk through.
Most of my favorite trees survived but I was a bit bummed out about burning and losing some of the fruit trees I worked so hard to establish. On the bright side, trees seem to grow really fast down here and now that I have a water tank and irrigation pipes in place I can plant more, especially since I have such a cute irrigation monitor…
Despite the fact that brushfires are relatively common in Guanacaste–the dry part of Costa Rica where we live, apparently there isn’t much of a firefighting crew on hand in the area. The overall strategy seems to be to just ignore them and let them run their course. Eventually, a couple of professional firefighters showed up, but not until long after the fire danger had passed. So, hopefully, this second close call with fire will help highlight for everyone the importance of maintaining good firebreaks, and non-combustible architecture in particular .