THE GRADE FIRE
Glowing and exhausted from our summer successes, we cleaned up the site and prepared to depart in late July. Zach flew home to Pittsburgh and Jess stayed behind for an extra week, heading north with Ann for a quick road trip to visit family in Oregon. Around mid afternoon on a Sunday, a neighbor called Ann on the road with orders to evacuate the mountain immediately. A trailer had exploded on Highway 101 in the valley below. Fueled by hot dry winds and an unusual density of brittle undergrowth from an el niño winter, the fire swept up the mountain from the west and roared toward the domes and main house. Robert, who was home alone, ran out in his slippers and set to work preparing hoses and positioning a gas-powered pump at the pond below the main house. Ann called various friends to hurry up the hill and “help Robert evacuate.” Three of these friends from my parents’ church, Rolf, Jason, and Ted (an ex-firefighter), bravely stayed and helped him fight the fire. By the time it reached the house, Cal Fire was sending helicopters and engines to bomb the area with pink fire retardant chemicals and giant loads of water sourced from our pond. We are grateful to Ted as well as Peter Armstrong, an independent photographer who shoots for Cal Fire, for sharing their documentation.
Ann and Jess were shocked when googling the fire from the road to see a dramatic photo of our place featured in the Los Angeles Times. It reveals the fire sweeping across the swale toward the domes and main house . Photos by Peter Armstrong.
Robert by the woodpile, working to hold the fire at the fence behind the main house; firefighters parked by the freestanding shed on the way to the domes. Photos by Ted Enberg.
As the Cal Fire aerial view of the burned area above reveals, their collective efforts succeeded in stopping the fire at the dirt access road just behind the main house, preventing it from sweeping down the east side of the mountain and into the town of Redwood Valley below. The domes are not quite visible in this image; they are located just down the ridge from the solar array on the right side, in the fire zone. The fire burned 900 acres; approximately 150 of them were ours. We are extremely grateful to Robert, Rolf, Ted, and Jason, as well as the hundreds of firefighters who camped for several days on the mountain putting out flames. Cal Fire resounding credited Robert as a model of “fire preparedness” and ran a series of posts on social media, documenting the extent of the fire and the measures that limited the scope of the damage. We have copied over some of the text and images below, followed by Jess’s documentation of the domes upon her return from Oregon.
–CAL FIRE STORY–
By Doug Pitman, Public Information Officer, Sheriff’s Lieutenant, Marin County- while assigned to the Grade Fire Public Information Team:
Mr. Horton, a longtime Baker’s Creek resident, said, “I have been waiting for this fire for 24 years.” He has lived in his beautiful hilltop home, overlooking the picturesque Redwood Valley, for more than two decades.
Mr. Horton said he was in his home unaware of the fast approaching wildfire until a neighbor alerted him. Soon he was surrounded by friends as well as CAL FIRE and local firefighters who fought and kept the blaze from destroying his home. Firefighters saved his home because of the defensible space he had provided and his pond that helped supply firefighting water.
Mr. Horton could not fully express his heartfelt appreciation for the hard work and efforts that helped he and his neighbors save their homes. As a proud Vietnam Veteran, he showed his thanks by flying the United States flag in honor of his country and the public safety personnel who valiantly fought the Grade Fire.
As firefighters continued their mop-up of the 900 acre Grade Fire, just North of Ukiah, CA, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Robert Horton, who was assessing the damages to his and his neighboring homes.
Mr. Horton’s home had been spared from destruction and that had a lot to due with his obvious efforts in establishing and maintaining a wide perimeter of defensible space.The only damages were; a melted pipe, a burnt corner on one of his gates, and his split rail fence will require some repair.
Mr. Horton keeps his annual grasses cut low, loose litter to a minimum, his rain gutters covered, and he has his trees trimmed up, away from the ground.
-Cut annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches.
-Loose surface litter consisting of leaves, pine needles, and twigs shall be permitted to a maximum depth of 3 inches
-Trim tree limbs up 6 to 15 feet so they are unable to act as a ladder for fire from the ground up into the trees
-Remove all leaves, pine needles and debris from rain gutters
Mr. Horton goes above and beyond by:
-Having hoses that reach the 4 corners of his property
-Having a additional water pond with a pump
-Maintaining bare mineral soil under his deck
–END OF CAL FIRE STORY–
As the above panorama reveals, the fire burned a perimeter around the domes, wherever tall dry grasses were not mowed. The domes themselves were unscathed. The space was defended by Cal Fire and became the main encampment for firefighters who held watch for days after the fire was contained. They were all curious and impressed by the architecture, deeming it intelligent building in a region that, due to the long-term effects climate change, is increasingly prone to wildfire.
The grove of oak trees that lies between the main house and domes, providing a wonderful privacy screen, was hit hard, but we are hopeful that most of the trees are hearty and healthy enough to survive.
Robert and Jess took a ride in maxi (a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that we use to access challenging areas) to turkey gulch, the beautiful wooded area below the domes, to assess the damage. It was the first time we could see the exposed terrain, given that many decades of thick undergrowth was suddenly cleared.
Although we mourned the hurt beings- plants, trees, and animals- with whom we share this beautiful place, we accepted the Grade Fire with a sense of inevitability and deep gratitude that ourselves and our homes emerged unscathed. From one perspective, human-caused fires take their place in a continuum of “natural” wildfires that have always been a part of the land. Sometime in the 1960s, these same oak knolls burned, and many hundreds-of-years-old trees bore witness and thrived. Yet we knowingly designed the domes for an uncertain future, recognizing that California, like the rest of the world, is already reeling from the effects of climate change. The impact of wildfires is compounded by land development patterns that prevent controlled burning.
THE REDWOOD VALLEY FIRE
Nothing quite prepared us, however, for the enormity of the fires that ravaged our community in October 2017. This time, fires sprang up in eight different locations throughout N. California, driven by a sudden, massive drop in humidity combined with soaring temperatures and 50 + mph winds. It was the hottest summer on record, and the land was brittle from the long and rainless summer. The Redwood Valley Fire (also called the Mendocino Complex Fire) was started by sparking Pacific Gas & Electric poles swaying from the winds during the night. It swept with terrifying speed through the rural community of Redwood Valley and rushed up the mountain from the east, covering the areas left unburned by the Grade Fire.
Our parents were again on the front lines, receiving an evacuation order that roused them from sleep in the middle of the night. Shortly after, our neighbors, the Pardinis, arrived at the gate to the house. Their home was already on fire and they headed down the mountain. However, friends of theirs who came up to help them evacuate, an ex-fire-fighter named Ken and his son Carson, assessed the situation at our place and determined that there was a good chance of saving it yet again, in part because the Grade Fire created a “safe zone” around three sides of the main house. In an extraordinary act of solidarity, they stayed to help Ann and Robert. This time, the wall of flames was much higher and embers were shooting horizontally and lodging in every available nook. Cal Fire was nowhere to be seen; the speed and ferocity and confusion of the fire in the middle of the night prevented any organized fight. The four of them battled all night, putting out embers on the roof and at one point, flames on the deck. Ann paused only once to snap a few terrifying photos, above. Robert became lost in the smoke down by the pond and barely found his way back up to the shed, eyebrows and hair singed; it took weeks for his eyesight to return to normal. Somehow, they and the house were still standing come morning.
The sight in daylight was grim. Fences and trees were charred and broken. Whole forests of manzanita lining the road and protecting the domes from view were simply gone. The shiny new solar array was singed from the intensity of the heat, wires melted and several panels blistered. Small fires continued to burn nearby. Jute erosion mats and seed were freshly laid over the dome mounds just the day before, an essential step to stabilize the soil in preparation for heavy winter rains. This flammable material sent the fire soaring over top of the building. Happily, the windows did not blow from the heat, and the structures survived largely undamaged–although a true assessment would take additional time. The heavy smell of smoke and a thick layer of ash permeated everything, inside and out. The aerial photo from Cal Fire below shows how much more intense the Redwood Valley Fire burned as it overlapped the areas devastated by the summer Grade Fire.
For about a week, the fires continued to burn elsewhere and my parents were trapped on the mountain without electricity or water. They learned that in addition to the Pardinins, the Gibsons, Knapps, and several other neighbors lost their homes. Our nearby friends, Bill and Jay, survived both fires and were the only people on the mountain besides our parents during this period. Jess was able to communicate with Ann thanks to a generator that powered her cell phone in short bursts throughout the week. Since Jess was on a semester-long research leave from her university, she bought a plane ticket to help with the fire recovery the following week, anticipating that the region would by then stabilize. She was also able to arrange for a delivery of gas and groceries through a friend’s son who worked for AT&T, who was busy repairing fiber optics networks in the valley and bluffed his way through the barricades. The Friday following the fire, Pacific Gas & Electric arrived to repair several damaged poles on our road. Electricity was restored, but water would remain elusive for several more weeks. The roads reopened on Monday.
The full extent of the fire–although just one of many that devastated the region- was staggering for our close-knit rural community. It burned 36,523 acres, destroyed 545 structures, damaged 43 more, and killed 8 people. Many of our friends and neighbors lost homes. We are humbled by the extraordinary generosity of all who shared time and resources with us during this period.
When Jess arrived the following week, 10 days after the fire hit our homes, the air was cleared as the first storm of the season rolled in. As she began the 2.5 mile drive up the winding dirt road from the base of the mountain, the damage became worse at each turn. When she rounded the corner for the last stretch before the domes, the sight of the scorched manzanita forests was temporarily overwhelming. Soon, however, shock turned into peaceful awareness and commitment to the work at hand. Ann and Robert, swamped with damage to the property, had not yet been able to attend to the domes. The first step was to quickly replant the singed dirt mound before heavy rains caused irreversible erosion. Jess, Ann and Robert, along with family friends Laura and Roy, joined in the collective labor. Another friend, Robert, helped finish the job the following day. Spirits were high.
Damage to the domes slowly revealed itself: Melted ventilation pipes. Dangerous trees that needed removing. A warped window sash. Burn holes in screens. Bubbling areas of stucco that would need to be replaced. By far the worst damage, however, was the result of a freak accident. Brack left his scaffolding in place along the front wall after the stucco was finished as a favor to us because we were waiting for another contractor to install a copper cap to seal the top edge. The contractor backed out and hence, the scaffolding remained in place much longer than anticipated. One of the boards went up in flames and in turn, a cleanout drain attached to the buried french drain around the bottom perimeter of the domes also caught fire. The damage reached surprisingly far back, through the front wall and under 150 tons of dirt bearing down on the pipe. Barely had we moved a mountain, before we were confronted with the prospect of digging it back up. Zach made a very short trip out to install a temporary fix, which will hopefully see us through the rainy season. He also assessed and set in motion needed repairs to the new solar array. We are hopeful that an insurance claim to the main house may extend to the domes, which would ease the financial burden of redoing our hard won steps. On the whole, we feel incredibly proud that the domes stood tall through two fires. This gift compels our sense of responsibility to the project, the land, and the people associated with it. Paraphrasing our mother, why wouldn’t we love a place when it is hurting, just as we would love a person?
On one of her last days on site, Jess spotted a rainbow, a sign of the changes- driven by fire and water- that will continue to reshape the land. As we write in late November, the rains have brought the first wave of vivid green and grazing deer.