Writer Ed Quillen says that town and county planners should adopt a new category called the Stupid Zone. You know some Stupid Zone residents, I’m sure: those nearsighted folks who choose to live at the bottom of avalanche chutes, on top of earthquake faults, or in the middle of a 10-year floodplain. Like me, you might have sighed at their various predicaments, thinking, Too bad, but didn’t they know what was coming?
This month, as wildfires have exploded all over the West, I’ve come to an uncomfortable realization. I live in the Stupid Zone.
I suppose I’ve known for a while that our high, dry, juniper-studded acreage carries a heavy risk along with its beautiful views. Eight years ago, the mesa just to the south of ours went up in smoke, destroying three homes. Among the escapees were two good friends who got out with just seconds to spare. Since I moved to this desert valley four years ago, the fire risk has only gotten worse. The winters have been almost snowless, the summers baked dry, the August air tinged brown with smoke.
Yet this year, my perch above town feels different. Scarier. Stupider. Maybe it’s the horror-movie start to this year’s fire season. Maybe it’s that I now work at home, so when I’m stuck for writing ideas I stare out at the weedy, lovelorn junipers near our house. Or maybe I’m just all too aware that our house is built out of straw. Okay, it’s built out of straw that’s covered with not-so-fire-prone stucco, but this summer I think I’d feel better if it were built out of large, asbestos-covered boulders.
As a Stupid Zone resident, I have to be a little fatalistic. I wouldn’t want anyone risking their life to save me, much less save my house, so I’ve found that my relationship with my favorite books, kitchen appliances and knick-knacks has to be a little more distant than some people’s. That’s probably not a bad thing. But this summer, I’ve found out that living in the Stupid Zone can be more than live-and-let-burn.
My partner and I share about 80 acres with four other families. Our lives are mostly independent from one another, but all the families have agreed on a couple of basic bans: no wildlife-tormenting outdoor pets, and no houses built more than 50 feet from the main road. In early June, when a smoldering coal seam touched off a big wildfire in the next valley, we decided to get just a little more cooperative. We’d thin the junipers nearest our houses, we agreed, but we’d also get ready to put out any fires before they spread. We all remembered the story of how the last big fire in our valley got started: a lightning strike ignited a tree, which burned for two days before the blaze finally got going.
Despite calls from observers across the valley, the local fire department assumed the initial flames would go out naturally. Needless to say, they didn’t. So our little mesa-top neighborhood has formed a fire department. A poorly equipped, kind-of, sort-of fire department, but one that we think might help out in an emergency. One neighbor immediately donated an old, reliable pickup truck to the cause. He filled up its 200-gallon cistern and showed us how to work its gas-powered pump. Then he left the keys in the ignition and parked it on a bend in the road.
All the landowners and a few other neighbors — among us are three teachers, two architects, a brand-new mom and dad, an ex-Forest Service firefighter, and a translator of ancient Japanese texts — piled gloves and Pulaskis into the back. We’re not imagining great heroics here, though it’s become pretty obvious that some of us really wanted to be firefighters when we were kids. Neither are we imagining acts of great stupidity (other than living here, of course).
K0hoping that while the fire department is on its way to help us, one or more of us could douse a smoldering tree before it touches off its neighbors. We’re also, I think, looking to break the tension that’s weighed on each of us these past few weeks. We’re searching for a name for our department — the Hippie Hill Hosers, maybe? — and we’re all keeping an eye out for some wide-brimmed helmets. And our next meeting, of course, will be held at the local fire department’s annual pancake breakfast.
After all, it’s going to be one long, hot summer. We have to laugh a little at our own stupidity.