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Grace and ashes: fire prevention is crucial in the country.

In my favorite, movie, Out of Africa, Meryl Streep's opening line is, I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Her coffee farm, in the movie, was destroyed by fire. When I walk my property my mind says, "I had a farm in the Tahoe National Forest, a mile and a half from the South Yuba River. My farmhouse, car, guest cabin, and well house were destroyed by fire." Meryl Streep returned to her home in Denmark. But for me, this is my only home.

When I moved to this area in 1999, I joined the local volunteer fire department. There was a saying among the firefighters, "We don't say If your home burns, we say when your home burns." This area is known for wildfires and remote homes with limited access to fire suppression water. In the mid-2000s after a number of major wildfires, most of the top name homeowners insurance companies pulled out of the area. Our insurance was one of them. It took months of searching to find a company to replace them.

My home was not destroyed by a wildfire. It didn't really burn, it exploded. I live off the utility grid. Therefore, many of my appliances were propane. It appears to have began with a malfunction in a small radiant wall heater in the bathroom. The pilot light must have gone out and propane continued to fill the bathroom and kitchen. The kitchen had a propane refrigerator and cook store with oven. All of which had pilot lights. A fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat. The wall heater must have malfunctioned during the night providing the fuel for the fire equation. Oxygen is always present. And, I got up that morning and rekindled the fire in the woodstove and turned on the cook stove for a cup of tea. There was no propane odor. But I happened to look up and noticed gray swirling gases at the ceiling. I assumed this was some kind of thermal reaction and grabbed my pets and exited the house. The bathroom had already ignited. I ran across the road in my wet stocking feet to call 911 and heard the refrigerator and cook stove blow.

At the time of the fire I was long retired from firefighting. The North San Juan Fire Department responded. They worked quickly, skillfully and efficiently. My car was parked next to the house and contained a half tank of gas, it exploded. The well house and guest cabin were on the other side of the car and burned to the ground too. The remaining outbuildings and two acres did not burn. North San Juan Fire Department contained the fire to the foot print of the house, car, well house and guest cabin. They saved all of the trees but one small cedar. They saved the tack room, chicken coop, the barn, a shed and the outbuilding with all the solar equipment in it.

Since the fire I have asked myself, how can I have better fire prevention and how can I better defend my home if a fire does start? I had several fire extinguishers at the time of the fire, but had let all of them become expired. While in the fire department we installed a hydrant on our property, but my husband never completed its hook in to the water system. Life kept moving at warp speed. Especially so living rurally and off grid. When one lives in a remote rural area you become your own electric company, water company, waste management company, and more. I once researched new residents to this area for another article and found that most people only last two years living off grid and remote. The vacation-like scenery woos them into believing living here will be leisurely. A couple years of back-breaking and endless work, trying to keep up with the afore mentioned responsibilities, and Mother Nature destroyed their dreams and the "for sale" sign goes up.

My house and the other structures that burned were made of site-milled cedar. Cedar is very flammable. I didn't know anything about the flammability of wood when I purchased the place. The buildings were built by stoned hippies in the 1970s. It was a home with a great deal of character. I had properly installed smoke alarms, but no carbon dioxide sensors. I had followed the fire department's recommendations on fire safety on the property. I limbed up all my trees. I removed ground growth in-between trees. For years I used goats to do most of the brushing. I had movable electric fencing to move them around the property wherever brushing was needed. I cleared trees too close to the house. I removed scotch broom, a highly flammable invasive plant. I picked up downed branches and pine cones.

One thing I did not do was insist on professional installation of flame-producing appliances. Most of my years here at the farm, I was married. My husband was very independent and skilled. He would not allow me to hire anyone to do anything. He felt he had to do it all. Looking back I think a professional opinion on installation of heaters, stoves and refrigerators may have been valuable given the house was cedar and unprofessionally built. I guess I've just moved fully into the "better safe than sorry" camp.

My homeowner's insurance sent checks to replace the house and contents. My car insurance replaced the car. But nothing can replace those sentimental items we all have. It took a very short time to lose 55 years of memories. At the time of the fire I had an angry estranged husband. He tied up the insurance checks for a year. I had no family to go to and lived camping-style in an old RV with no water, septic, or lights for many months. I am a new homesteader all over again at 56 years old. So, I'd like to address a sensitive subject. I had not seen my estranged husband for three years. When you are sure someone is out of your family, take legal steps to provide for yourself. I believe that says it all.

Far Out Farms will rise again. But this time it will be a retirement farm. Different techniques and practices will have to be developed. This old farmer isn't defeated yet!

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Author:Jansen, Lisa Olivia
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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