When Your Yard Can Kill You

Flames consume a home on Highway 89 as the Dixie Fire tears through the Greenville community of Plumas County, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. The fire leveled multiple historic buildings and dozens of homes in central Greenville.

Flames consume a home on Highway 89 as the Dixie Fire tears through the Greenville community of Plumas County, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. The fire leveled multiple historic buildings and dozens of homes in central Greenville. AP Photo/Noah Berger

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

My mom wanted to be prepared for wildfire season. But I knew she was concerned about the cost.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletters.

“I’m worried I’m going to fail,” my mom told me over the phone the night before her fire inspection. It was April, and she had been preparing for months, cutting branches, pruning hedges, and removing dead weeds in her backyard. She had learned how to use an array of garden tools—three saws, including a chain saw, and four different kinds of clippers—and even considered buying a wood chipper before deciding that machine was too dangerous for an amateur like herself.

In California, state and local laws have long required that people who live in areas at high risk of wildfires create buffers of “defensible space”—land cleared of vegetation and other flammable material—around their homes. Local fire departments and Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, are tasked with going door-to-door to inspect the properties of the estimated 2.7 million Californians who live in these zones. And as the state’s fires have gotten worse, local communities have begun enforcing the law more aggressively. Only in the past year or so has Hillsborough, the small Bay Area town where my mom lives, started to inspect every high-risk property for compliance. My mom wanted to be ready. I told her not to worry about passing the inspection, and that she could hire tree trimmers to work on the branches that were out of reach, but I knew she was concerned about the cost.

[Annie Lowrey: California is becoming unlivable]

Even though my mom had tried her best to cut back the lush backyard, her weekend landscaping was not nearly enough to create the defensible space required. During the inspection, my mom learned that much of her yard would have to go. The oak branches were hanging too low over the roof; the thicket of acacia trees was too dense; the smaller redwood limbs needed to be at least six feet off the ground. The biggest problem was her brambly oak hedge, which lined the driveway and stood at least seven feet tall. It provided privacy, but the inspector explained that if it caught fire, my mom would have no pathway to escape.

That was all it took to persuade my mom to make substantial changes. She still remembers the morning last September when she thought she’d woken up on Mars. The sky was a hazy, burnt tangerine; the sun was nowhere to be seen. Thinking about the orange, smoke-filled sky made pushing away vanity easier. Who cares about having an ugly hedge if it means saving your life?

After the inspector left, my mom called several tree-trimming businesses to figure out how much the clearing would cost. The lowest estimate was $4,500; the highest was upwards of $10,000. She had 30 days to make the modifications before the inspector returned, so she hired a company that spent three days cutting down trees and feeding the branches into a wood chipper. My mom texted me live updates throughout the process, expressing horror at how unruly the yard looked. By the end of the third day, whole sections of the yard were cleared; the hedge was three feet shorter and knobby-looking, and the fence surrounding the property was actually visible. My mom was lucky that, with help from family, she was able to afford the tree trimmers. She passed the second inspection.

Personal, direct effects of climate change—having to conserve water during drought season, install air-conditioning to combat rising temperatures, and clear vegetation from yards and gardens to protect against wildfires—are the new normal in California. But individuals and policy makers are still figuring out how to share those burdens equitably. Although studies indicate that homes surrounded by defensible space are less likely to be damaged by fires, making sure that homeowners follow the law is not always easy. Local fire departments and Cal Fire units have fallen behind on completing annual inspections because of staffing shortages. And homeowners like my mom have to cover the high costs of fireproofing their backyard.

[Leah C. Stokes: How can we plan for the future in California?]

Those costs are the most significant challenge to achieving compliance with California’s fire-protection laws, Jennee Kuang, an environment program fellow at the Hewlett Foundation, found in a 2019 study of 49 defensible-space programs in California. “It’s an expensive thing to incorporate into your budget as a new annual line item,” she told me. The difficulties of complying with fire ordinances can vary based on a person’s wealth and age too. People with disabilities and elderly homeowners on limited incomes, for example, face greater obstacles to making modifications to their properties, and to paying for them. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a 94-year-old in San Diego who could neither clear the yard on his own nor foot the $14,000 bill for removing trees on his property. His neighbors eventually helped him apply for aid, but financial assistance isn’t always widely available.  

Although some counties, such as Humboldt, on the far north coast, reimburse homeowners on a per-acre basis, many residents rely on grassroots organizations that may have access to the state and federal grants that individuals can’t apply for. Some local fire-safety groups have dedicated funds to help those in need, or organize days on which people can use a community wood chipper for free. Within areas that Cal Fire inspects, the average rate of compliance in 2021 has been 85 percent, according to John Morgan, the defensible-space division chief at the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Kuang found that districts with strict enforcement penalties—such as fees or property liens—had the highest compliance rates.

But expecting residents to absorb the costs, time, and labor of protecting their homes can make people resistant to creating fire-resilient communities, says Annie Schmidt, a program specialist at the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, a fire-safety education organization. Vegetation modifications and home-hardening improvements, such as replacing roofs with fireproof material, are crucial to protecting neighborhoods but “may not be perceived as beneficial enough to warrant investment,” she told me over email.

With 95 percent of California experiencing severe drought and the typical fire season growing hotter and longer each year because of climate change, the question may no longer be if fire will reach a community, but when. Fires can’t be eradicated—at least not completely—and the state’s longtime strategy of suppressing fire has created ever more dangerous conditions. Wildfires are inevitable. But the destruction of Californians’ homes and lives doesn’t have to be. What’s needed, then, is not only assistance for residents in fireproofing their homes but also recognition among residents of the real and imminent dangers that wildfires pose.

Californians may be starting to better understand that threat. Last year’s fires were a “wake-up call” for many people in Hillsborough, Christine Reed, the fire marshal at the Central County Fire Department, which oversees Hillsborough, told me. Most homeowners have been on board with scheduling inspections and making the necessary modifications, and the department aims to finish inspections by the end of the year. “When you’re driving on the highway and you’re seeing a big column of smoke in the distance, it hits home. It’s a reminder that it can happen here,” Reed said. “I see so many more people working on their lots when I traverse areas of the state,” Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in fire management, told me.

I also felt a shift when I arrived home in June. I could hear chain saws and wood chippers throughout the day. When I drove into Palo Alto, I saw a herd of goats on the side of the road, diligently chewing through a field of dead grass. On July 4, I heard my neighbors lighting fireworks and panicked over whether calling the police would make me a responsible citizen or a Karen. (To my relief, they hosed down the fireworks before I had to make a decision.) On a walk around the neighborhood, my mom pointed out patches of overgrown grass, piles of dry brush, and mounds of mulch. In just a few months, her mind had been primed to look at the world in terms of what could burn. At first, I found her new outlook alarming. But I realized this was just a consequence of learning to live with the threat of fire.

[Read: The simple reason that humans can’t control wildfires]

I asked my mom whether she had ever considered leaving California and living somewhere else. Wouldn’t she like to go to sleep without worrying about needing to escape in the middle of the night? Wouldn’t she like to avoid waking up to another hazy, orange sky? Her answer was an immediate no. “I was born and raised here,” she said. “And our family is here.” Besides, where else would she go? Natural disasters and extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are affecting people everywhere, not just in California. And the personal costs of climate change are becoming more apparent: higher insurance premiums, higher electricity bills for air-conditioning, higher prices for food and gas. You may not have to worry about clearing vegetation from your yard. But climate change’s bills will come due for you too.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.