When considering moving to Nevada City a year ago, I knew about the danger of living in a wildfire zone. But, like dating a really hot guy all your friends warn you about, I ignored the warnings. I couldn’t help myself once I saw the charm of Nevada City and smelled the heady aroma of pine needles. Sure enough, a month after we moved in, half the city was evacuated in the Jones Fire. My family and I voluntarily departed, because the actual evacuation boundary felt too close for comfort. That night, sitting in a weird brew pub in Roseville, I felt a mix of foreboding, terror, and shame.
We were lucky. Our house was fine, and in the days that followed, I vowed I would do all I could do to be “fire safe” going forward. I also vowed to get a really expensive water filter to catch all the cancer-causing toxins in my water. To take up stretching. To write and record an album of songs commemorating the 2020 election.
I did none of those things. When the weather turned warm, and suddenly everybody started talking about how fire season was coming, I knew it was now, or maybe never; it was time to start my Fire Safe Journey.
Code Red and “Know Your Zone”
The first week I moved in, my neighbor had told me to sign up for CodeRED. By downloading the app and registering, you would get alert texts (or opt to receive email or calls), in case of emergency. You will get evacuation notifications if there’s a fire, which I did during the Jones Fire.
As it so happens, less than 50 percent of the entire County has signed up for CodeRED, according to Scott Beesely, chairman of the Nevada County Coalition of FireWise Communities. Paul Cummings, program manager for Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services, says he has even taken to setting up stands at art fairs to try to get people to sign up.
The public reticence seems strange to me; it reminds me of the time I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Airbags are for wimps.” Then again, maybe people just don’t have a nice neighbor to tell them about it, and they’ve immediately trashed every flyer and pamphlet mailed to them by the County telling them to sign up.
Next up was “Know Your Zone.” This is an effort by the County to get people to visit Zonehaven, to figure out what evacuation zone they’re in. Without even having to register, you simply plug in your address, and it will spit out your zone number. If there’s an evacuation, emergency services personnel will evacuate residents by zones, allowing, at least in theory, for a gradual, less congested, exodus. I visited the site, and found out that my zone is E290. I wrote it on a Post-it, and put it under a magnet on the fridge next to a coconut iced coffee recipe. I’m likely to remember the coconut coffee.
Creating Defensible Space
I read up on creating a defensible space around my house — that is, making sure you don’t have a bunch of stuff lying around outside that could catch fire. There are a number of resources for this information, including the Nevada County website and the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.
I live “in town” in Nevada City, around the block from Pioneer Park. There is a fire hydrant across the street from me. I found myself wondering, if a fire came all the way to my house, wouldn’t it mean that the fire was raging so out of control that it was going to take down the entire city anyway? Would raking my leaves or cutting a dry branch or two back make any difference?
As a matter of fact, the answer is “yes.”
“The embers are a huge part of this,” warned Emily Rogan, senior program officer with United PolicyHolders, a nonprofit that helps people navigate buying fire insurance and filing claims. A lot of Rogan’s work is helping fire survivors after they’ve lost everything, and she was clear that nobody was immune from the dangers just because of their “in town“ status. “Embers get into your home or start hot spots and that’s a really big problem,” she clarified. Embers may be blowing from where the fire is, many miles away, to your home.
Still, whenever I looked at the list of things I was supposed to do to make my space defensible, I didn’t know where to start or how to get perspective on how bad my property really was. Finally, I decided to call the fire department. Nevada City Fire Division Chief Sam Goodspeed picked up the phone, and agreed to come right over.
A jovial man, Goodspeed arrived in fifteen minutes. Shocked at my good fortune, I asked him somewhat jokingly if anybody could just call up the fire chief and ask for an inspection.
“Yeah,” he said. “If someone calls up and says ‘I’d like you to come out and really inspect’, I will.”
I learned that I could also request free inspections through the County’s Office of Emergency Services, and through the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. Apparently many of these inspections are the result of neighbors tattling on each other out of desperation, imploring “You really need to inspect my neighbor’s house, because he has a small forest of beetle-infested trees that are going to spontaneously combust unless you guys come out and give him a talking to.”
In my case, I was more than happy to have an authority figure tell me what I was supposed to do. Goodspeed gave me a mostly clean bill of health, but did recommend I clean the pine needles out of my gutters to protect against embers. He also stated the obvious: that I need to get rid of the random lumber and other junk that has accumulated on the side of my house waiting to be taken to the dump.
“I would definitely move these old propane tanks away from the side of your house,” he added. Right.
I was also curious about the idea of the FireWise Community. As far as I could tell, these were like homeowner associations with a very specific purpose — to look out for each other in case of fire, and make sure their properties and surrounding features were defensible. I didn’t know if my neighborhood was a FireWise Community, and couldn’t figure it out from the Fire Safe Council’s website. I did know that the neighborhood where my son goes to school, Deer Creek Southside, is one — there is a homeowner with information boxes out front of the school advertising the fact.
I decided to do a drop-by. The homeowner put me in touch with Teri Voorhes, one of the neighborhood organizers. The Deer Creek Southside FireWise Community was created in 2019 partly as a way for neighbors to meet each other, Vorhees told me. (She had recently moved to town, and felt motivated.)
“For me, for selfish reasons, it was a great way to get to know my neighbors,” she said. Word of their initial meeting spread fast through neighbors walking their dogs, and close to 30 people turned out for it. The community now has close to 400 members.
In order to become a certified FireWise Community, you have to form a committee to track compliance, and do a handful of things such as hold one work day or education day per year, and spend the equivalent of two dollars per capita annually on Firewise projects in your neighborhood. (This is estimated in work hours, billed at $29 an hour).
The Deer Creek Southside FireWise Community did more than the minimum: They created what’s referred to as a “fuel break” along the south side of Deer Creek canyon. This was a massive undertaking involving clearing and chipping a large number of trees, Vorhees remembered. The purpose was to slow a fire should it rush up the canyon, allowing people more time to get out.
I was impressed by the project, which was initiated by a cannabis company called Jahlybird based in an office building in the Deer Creek neighborhood. But I was more personally inspired when Voorhes told me that when the neighborhood was evacuated during the Jones fire, the neighbors were all talking with each other to make sure their 92-year-old neighbor had gotten to safety.
“Everybody was helping each other up and down the street,” said Voorhes. They even had a pair of walkie talkies, in case the internet and cell service failed.
We can’t all be Jahlybird, and initiate a major multi-tree-removal project, but we can at least get to know our neighbors in order to help in an emergency. At the moment, I know some of my neighbors, but not most of them. Having a reason to get to know them, as Voorhes did, makes sense to me. If anybody wants to start a FireWise Community in Pioneer Park, hit me up. Let’s do this!
There is nothing less sexy than insurance. Really, nothing. There is no fresh IPA or chips-and- salsa combo that can make a webinar on homeowners insurance something you want to curl up with on a Friday evening. But let me tell you, after all this fire safety talk, I did just that.
Here’s the deal: If you live in a high fire-danger area, like Nevada City, it can be difficult to get anybody to sell you home insurance. Even if you do manage to get it, there’s a good chance you’ll be dropped. One of the few insurance companies willing to take on new customers in this area at the time of publication, seemingly, was State Farm. If you still can’t find anybody to insure you, there’s a fallback, and that’s the California FAIR plan.
The FAIR plan has some issues. The chief one is that it doesn’t cover aspects like personal liability or water damage. For those, you have to buy yet another homeowner’s insurance policy, in which case you’ll find yourself paying two premiums.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know what kind of policy we had, and that when I looked into it, I learned that we were in this latter boat: the FAIR plan plus additional policy. I called State Farm to see if they could give us a quote, and luckily they did. We switched insurance carriers right then.
Did you know that, if your house burns to the ground, the cost of rebuilding will most likely not be totally covered by insurance? That’s right. Three of every five homes in America are underinsured by an average of 20 percent less than full value, according to analytics firm CoreLogic, whose software is a widely used tool for estimating replacement cost. To find out exactly how much you would get in replacement costs, get out a copy of your policy, go to the declarations page, and look at the number next to “Dwelling Coverage A limit”.
When I did this myself, I didn’t need to use CoreLogic to see that the number was too low. You have many considerations when estimating how much it would take to rebuild your house: How expensive are contractors in your area? How much will they charge if everybody else in town is also trying to rebuild? What about the costs of code compliance? There are elements that you have to build into a new home that you might not currently have, because of changes to the building code.
United PolicyHolders, the company that helps customers navigate homeowner’s insurance, recommends extending your coverage limit as much as you possibly can. In other words, buying more insurance. (I told you this was a really sexy section.)
The Final Analysis
My husband and I are still in the process of buffing up our new insurance, to make sure we aren’t hosed (so to speak) if the place burns down. If you want to learn more about how to buff up your policy, I recommend visiting United PolicyHolders’ website, and checking out their resources.
The final, and perhaps most exciting piece of my Fire Safe Journey, involved creating an inventory of our personal possessions. Several sources told me to do this, so that in case of catastrophic loss, we would have documentation which would make filing claims easier. I followed recommendations and walked around my house video recording myself on my iPhone saying things like, “And here is my rice maker, which honestly only cost five bucks and is probably giving me cancer, but it’s next to this really nice Cuisinart, which has an ice cream maker attachment that you can’t see back there because of all the crap.”
Making the video gave me a warm feeling. Not too warm, as in, there’s a fire. More like: I’ve built a nice life, and I like my stuff. I probably should have been a little self-critical about that, as in, “How messed up that stuff makes you happy?’ But I didn’t. I just finished the video.
Then it sat there because I couldn’t figure out how to upload it to the cloud.
I’m telling you all this because it’s scary trying to prepare for a nightmarish scenario. It’s overwhelming to think about losing your home and your possessions, and being broke and traumatized. But it’s better to have a video on your phone that’s not in the cloud than no video. It’s better to have better insurance than so-so insurance — or at the very least, to understand your insurance. It’s good to admit that cleaning up all the dead leaves and needles around your home is more than just cosmetic.
It’s easy to think you can just do nothing because you can’t figure it all out. As you can see, I’ve been there. But if even I, a member of Gen X, AKA the “slacker” generation, can get Fire Safe and Fire Smart, you can, too.