Until 8 July of this year, I never gave large ag burns any serious thought. They were ubiquitous when we lived in Mexico, and they are commonplace here in the Valley. In the Bay Area, where I grew up, they were unheard of.
I’ve only had one experience with a big ag burn, and I can now unequivocally say that, as a regular practice, it is an unsound idea. They’re commonplace here–as I’ve said–because, usually, no consequence other than air pollution attaches.
Except for 8 July of this year. A Friday. The day our son’s bedroom and attached second garage burned to the ground.
Fighting a structure fire with a garden hose is terrifying and surreal. My record stands at 0-1.
It began with the property owner’s uprooting his nine acres of citrus, which was bulldozed into nine piles surrounding the house on three sides. This made for a noisome mess but, somehow, my wife and I were reassured by notion that these would be chipped. Not only did the piles surround the house, they were, to our minds, entirely too close.
It was with some surprise, then, that we received a call from the property management at 8:30am informing us that the dried citrus would be burned that morning.
“There goes that second building,” I only half seriously told my wife. “That old shake roof will go right up. But we’ll be fine here in the main house because of the metal roof.”
It only took three hours for this to come true.
You tend to notice when your house is surrounded by fire. I went out to the road to gauge the conditions for my morning run, and spoke with the man who the fire report states was “responsible for igniting the debris piles.”
It was too windy, I thought–but also now too late. Unless it came due east, any wind at all would be problematic. His concern was with a dry open field to the south of the house, but thought the danger was over.
“All the foliage has already gone up,” he said. “That’s the scary stuff.” And he told me had a water truck patrolling, just in case.
But, windy as it was, the air was still thick with smoke. I was advised to give it about half an hour before going on my run.
Looking out the window ten minutes later, I saw the water truck go past–followed by an immense trail of dust. But it didn’t dissipate, and it wasn’t dust.
“Are we on fire?” I asked the guy who started it. A stupid question, I know–he was clearly smack in the process of trying to douse the east side of the roof.
As quickly as I could formulate the thought–although I do admit to devoting a few stray minutes to my panicked wife’s race to save the family photo albums–I grabbed a garden hose, fit a high-pressure nozzle on, and raced to the south side of the building, where I saw flames peeking up from the west that our fire-starting friend hadn’t noticed.
It was a lost cause. I thought we might be gaining the upper hand until, shifting to the east side, I saw our son’s whole room fall in. Thankfully, he’d escaped by rising only minutes before for–inexplicably–a popsicle.
But he lost everything. Literally. A fine testament to proper ag fire management. Why be scared of terrorists with the like of these people running free?
(If that last statement seems a bit much, consider this: Ten days later, without warning we were totally without water. The property owner was having his now cleared land ripped, and the new experts had apparently sliced through the main. To make matters worse this brain trust also cut the house’s electrical feed–and we were told it will take at least four days to fix. If there was a gas main I’m sure we’d have been blown to smithereens by now. But what’s truly terrifying is that these aren’t the same clowns who caused the fire; amazingly, it is a fresh set of Bozos–which prompts some questions: When does lesser quality help actually help? And how low will the property owner descend when it comes to hiring knuckle-draggers in an effort to save a buck or two?)
This, I can place outside of parentheses: You get what you pay for. The irony here, of course, is that, in cutting corners, the property owner incurred unnecessary–and untold–expense.
On the sunny side of the street, what more can they do to us? They burned our son’s bedroom down. The attached second garage contained most of my musical equipment, now scorched, and the pool was rendered unusable because its power source is hors de combat. I’d say a good third of the place is totally destroyed. We’re bulletproof!
— Joseph Oldenbourg