On Wednesday morning, I awoke to the news that several of our fellow community members had lost their homes to fire. I typically submit articles for publication on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I had an almost-completed article — that will now be published next week — ready to put the finishing touches on this morning.
The announcer’s voice changed that. Ten Tooele homes were a complete loss, eight others had varying degrees of significant damage. Emergency responders once again put themselves in harm’s way to protect the citizenry they vowed they would. Along the way, three of them were treated for smoke inhalation and were released.
Then came the horrific news that the fire is being investigated as an arson. My mind, like yours, reels at this. At the time when fire danger is at its highest, with low humidity, high temperatures and wind, someone starts a fire — intentionally. It was originally suspected to have been caused by fireworks (don’t get me started on this), but it turned out otherwise. By the time you read this Thursday, a suspect may be identified. Maybe not. It depends on who saw what and how strongly the sense of guilt the perpetrator may or may not have.
I know this is a gardening column. Even so, maybe my thoughts can help comfort some affected by this event, and also mobilize many of us to be a part of helping these families as they live in a new normal. It’s good to hear that large quantities of food, water and clothing have been donated for the American Red Cross to distribute. The biggest need right now is simply cash. While most of us can’t do a lot, we can all do a little, and it adds up.
Gardeners, I believe we have an opportunity before us to help these families in a tangible way when the rebuilding process begins. We understand that there is much more to where we live than just the house. The yardscape is part of what we call home, and whatever “yard” our unfortunate friends had, it’s gone. So, when the time comes to replant, perhaps we can help. This help can be as simple as providing replacement plants and trees that you propagate from your yardscape. Or, some of us can provide some basic landscape design or irrigation installation help.
I’ve found that in times of trial and disaster, saying, “let me know if there’s something I can do” can come across as hollow or trite — even if it is sincere. It’s been my experience that it’s better to err on the side of doing too much. During times of loss, it’s the practical things that really help along and are highly appreciated.
Fire is one of the most devastating things that can occur. The flames do not discriminate between common everyday items and keepsakes. Simply put, as far as fire is concerned, objects are a fuel source or not. It’s a hard reality to grasp.
I’ve had a couple of encounters with fire that could have turned out much worse than they did. One was when I was in grade school. The other was as an adult living in the desert region of southeast Arizona. There are some comical elements to both stories that I’ll save for another time in light of the somber situation at hand. My wife also faced a house fire. Fortunately, no one was at home. Unfortunately, the house was a loss, along with many family mementoes, including baby photos of her three children (who I am pleased to have as part of my family), yearbooks, baby clothes and on and on. She has a much better sense of the loss that our Tooele friends are experiencing right now than I do, and it shows in the conversations we had throughout Wednesday morning.
Undoubtedly, there are insights and lessons learned as a result of this tragedy. Indeed, one homeowner indicated that had she not mowed down the dry grass behind her house several days ago, she would have certainly lost her house. That’s what you call a “close call.” I’m sure that all of the homeowners that experienced loss or damage to their homes have some observations to offer about how to minimize the chance of this happening to others. The same could be said of all the members of the agencies that responded to suppress the flames.
The reality is that we live in a desert. Sometimes, it doesn’t appear that way because we enjoy the benefits of irrigation and the foresight of those who have gone before that planted the trees that now provide much of the shade we enjoy. However, all one needs to do is look just outside an irrigated area to see the desert always just at our doorstep.
Even so, it’s not the natural desert that presents as much a fire danger as land that has been modified from its natural state. Much of the tinder that can occur is from disturbed land that has become infested with weeds and rapidly growing grasses. These species have one season to germinate, grow, and go to seed — all without irrigation. If water is available, the growth rate is exponential! The point is that there is a lot of dry, brittle and readily flammable materials produced when ground is scraped (such as when new homes are built), or an agricultural field is taken out of cultivation and allowed to sit for seasons or years.
Should this occur, top growth needs to be at least mowed down and removed to greatly reduce fuel for ignition. Still, fire can move across an area of stubble given low humidity and breezy conditions. So, the next defense is some type of greenbelt or nonflammable space between readily flammable areas and our yardscapes, homes and outbuildings.
A couple of strategies include vegetation-free or sparsely planted areas. This includes concrete areas, stone work, paver-covered sections, or gravel or fractured stone chips, such as lime fines. Planters for low plants and small flower beds can provide visual interest without being a significant fuel source should a fire head your way.
Yet another way to slow down the advance of a fire is keeping large areas of succulent-type low- and medium-height growing plants. Sedums are one such plant. They will provide both greenery and color, while possessing a high level of moisture content that will naturally act as fire suppressants. Of course, mowed and watered lawns provide cooling, recreational space and visual appeal, all while acting as sort of an insurance policy against fire.
Closer to homes and outbuildings, more intensive landscaping can be installed, but keep in mind that trees right against houses and buildings can be a fuel source, as well as a long-term danger if branches should break. Security is also compromised due to concealed spaces they can provide.
What is growing or not growing around a property is only one part of the equation. What has been placed there can be either part of the solution or part of the problem. Remember, fire doesn’t discriminate when it comes to what will burn. An old wood shed, disabled vehicles and equipment, or stored items with vegetation growing up through them is all fair game as far as ignition or fueling an existing fire goes. So, keep it clean, both for visual enjoyment and safety.
Now is the time for us to step up and help these friends that lost their homes or had them damaged. I think there are some new friendships to be made and an opportunity to come out stronger and tighter as a community. If you’d like to donate for supplies to be provided to them, visit your local Zions Bank and donate to the Tooele Fire Relief Fund. Everything helps, so do what you can! In the future, I’ll call your attention to some practical ways you can assist with your gardening skills and assets.
If we all shoulder a bit of this trial, it will become much more bearable for those who lost so much.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.