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FIRE! How to prepare for the worst

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Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life (A Handbook for Homeowners) by Linda Masterson ($16.95 softcover, 144 pages, ISBN 978-1-936555-15-4, PixyJack Press) Also available as an ebook


“On average, it takes about an hour for a home to burn down.” ~ Linda Masterson in “Surviving Wildfire”

Imagine staring at an ash-covered landscape, the land where your house once stood. Feeling empty, oh so empty. “It’s all gone,” you might say aloud to the void before you, as a bombardment of questions start swirling in your mind. Could I have done something to prevent this? Or if not prevent it, was there anything I could have prepared beforehand, to make things easier, now? My house is gone and everything in it. What do I do first? What do I do next?     

Heading into spring, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the same questions, and who better to provide the answers than someone who has survived a wildfire that cost her everything. “Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life (A Handbook for Homeowners)” is Linda Masterson’s instructional guide for all of us who live in and near the forest. Masterson and her husband lived in the woods, as we do, and in April 2011 their home, along with 12 others, burned to the ground in the foothills west of Fort Collins, Colo. “I agreed to write this handbook because I don’t want anyone else to learn their lessons the way we had to,” she writes.

At 135 pages, “Surviving Wildfire” is a comprehensive guide that confronts each subject matter thoroughly, from pre-planning to post-planning, with clear, simple-to-follow instructions. She begins with defining wildfire zones, explains the logistics of fire, and then moves to assessing risk, recommending that we think about fire safety before we buy and build, by looking at slopes, trees, site exposure, the direction of prevailing winds, and the location of the driveway. The roof, I learned, is the most vulnerable part of a house, so a simple design is safer. With multi-faceted roofs, “heat can pool in any type of depression, creating eddies and hot spots that eventually start the roof on fire.”

Once a home is built, ongoing maintenance is key: clean gutters and chimneys, remove downed branches, and store firewood away from the house, at least 30 feet. Of course, and I write “of course” because this seems to be a Tahoe mantra, create defensible space. Case in point. Colorado’s Fourmile Canyon Fire destroyed 168 homes west of Boulder in 2010. The official report concluded that the lack of defensible space within 100 feet of the homes was the main reason the homes were lost. To improve defensibility, prune, trim, and remove dead and dried plants and trees, and add fire-resistant walkways and rock landscapes.

Another gentle reminder — read your homeowner’s insurance policy. Again. “In the average wildfire, more than half of the people who lost their homes are underinsured by 25 percent or more,” Masterson wrote. Does it include extended replacement costs? Did you add recent upgrades? What about debris removal? Some people, Masterson writes, have paid up to $50,000 to have debris (the burned house) removed and disposed of according to county regulations.

Documenting belongings is the chapter that resonated with me. I have often thought about the “what if.” What if all those precious antiques passed down to my husband and me, the artwork we have collected together for over 30 years, and the jewelry I have inherited, all went up in smoke? The preventative measure is simple, but does require time and effort. Take photographs and videos and put them on thumb drives to give to family members or friends (who don’t live near you as they may be in the same situation) or post those on an online storage service. Masterson highly recommends knowyourstuff.com, where you can follow links to house inventory software. I also like the idea of videotaping your house, room by room, opening cupboards, closets, and drawers, narrating as you go: “This turquoise necklace was bought in 2005 and cost $130. This table is from Aunt Martha, estimated at about $4,000, from the early 1900s, and is made of walnut.” Don’t forget to take photographs and/or videos of the outside of the house including decks and/or outbuildings. Lastly, save receipts for big ticket items, such as furniture, electronics, and jewelry, that you’ve purchased since you last updated your homeowner’s policy or inventory.  

In the remaining chapters, Masterson addresses evacuation, the cleaning up of burnt debris, the healing process, both emotionally and financially, and moving forward, deciding whether to relocate or rebuild. Evacuation is a big topic, and little pieces of advice could make all the difference between saving or not saving your home (and life!). Who would think about unlocking all the windows and doors for easy access for fire agencies and turning on all the lights at night? If you’re trapped in the house, the stop-drop-roll slogan still applies, or as Masterson says, stay low to the ground, cover yourself with wool blankets or coats, and stay away from windows, which can shatter and let in fire.

It’s often easier to see how something could have been done differently or prevented, after the fact. Hindsight is always 20/20.

“Having your home burn to the ground in a wildfire does not automatically turn you into a wildfire expert,” Masterson said. “Although the aftermath forces you to become an insurance agent and gives you a lot of insight into woulda-coulda-shoulda.”

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