Should I Stay or Should I Go?

These days, when I look at my home, I see the nightmare that could be.

March 2019

Reading time min

House with abstract fire in the background.Illustration: Simon Pemberton

I’ve always loved to fall asleep to the sound of rain. It hits our skylight with a rhythmic tapping that is soothing and almost hypnotic. But after this summer of living in the hills with trees and plants so dry and brittle they seem on the verge of self-combustion, and wildfires raging across California through neighborhoods just like ours, the rain is more a relief than anything else.

In the dry months, the flick of ash from a lit cigarette or one spark from a windblown power line could turn our rural wonderland into an inferno.

Don Bullard, deputy fire marshal for Woodside, one of three stations responsible for our hillside community, stands, arms crossed, on our deck. He has come this foggy morning to assess our property and tell us how to make it fire safe.

This is not a happy conversation. Between our wood siding, our uncovered vents, the constantly renewing collection of dry leaves in every crevice and the dense canopy of trees, it is hard to know where to start. Moreover, we live across a narrow lane from a 460-acre park overflowing with dry undergrowth, dead wood and fallen branches that can only be described as kindling. The park hasn’t burned in about 100 years.

The most important step to take in protecting one’s home from wildfire, says Bullard, is to create 100 feet of defensible space, clear of anything flammable. There is no way for us to abide.

“Your house was built to burn,” says Bullard. “I wouldn’t live here.”

I ask what we could do. He ticks off a list: Remove our decades-old trumpet vine, the one that bursts with red flowers every spring. Re-side our wood house with stucco. Replace our wood decks and stairs with synthetic material. Cut back the enormous trees that lean over our property.

“It’s very expensive,” he says.

Then he advises us to photograph everything we care about in our house and save it to a thumb drive, store important papers elsewhere, keep a “go bag” by the door and increase our homeowners insurance. (Wildfire victims often face a second shock when they find the cost of rebuilding exceeds their insurance coverage.)

Our biggest problem, though, is escaping should there be a fire. Our road is barely wide enough for emergency vehicles. “Imagine if all your neighbors get in their cars and try to get out at the same time,” says Bullard. Can I outrun a wildfire, which can travel at just under 7 miles an hour? Not even on a good day, and certainly not with Rufus, my 80-pound, 12-year-old arthritic dog, in tow.

I stand on our deck, surrounded by the redwood and oak trees that made me fall in love with the place. I can hear tiny dark-eyed juncos chirping among the branches. These glories of nature are what drew us here eight years ago.

People all over the world live with the risks of disaster. But how much risk is too much?

There are difficult discussions ahead for our family. Where to go? How soon? And how big, really, is the actual risk of staying?

In need of solace, I turn to Henry David Thoreau, because who better knows the necessity and power of nature. It won’t solve our dilemma, but it brings me a moment of peace:

“All good things are wild and free.”

Melinda Sacks, ’74, is the senior writer at Stanford.

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