Don’t Lose the Lesson – Three Things to Learn from the Fires

Updated: Oct 18, 2017 11:15
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The fires are still burning and the smoke is still making the air unhealthy to breathe. It’s never to early to learn from hardship though. Here are three thoughts on the fires and three things we could consider changing.

1. Three Little Pigs

We all know the story of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, the children’s tale of houses built of straw, sticks and stone. We learn at a young age that certain materials are more or less impervious to the conditions on this planet… and yet…

We built most of our structures from wood because it is affordable, relatively abundant, and efficient to construct. Most of the time there’s nothing wrong with this until Mother Nature throws us a curve ball in the form of a flood, earthquake, or fire. Then the shortcomings of our shelters become more obvious.

There are certainly materials that we can coat the buildings with to make them more fire resistant. Stucco, for instance, is much more fire resistant than wooden shingles, and modern paints and plastic coatings offer our wooden boxes protection from the wind, rain and solar rays like never before.

Unfortunately, the toxic chemicals contained in those materials are currently floating through the air that Bay Area residents are breathing.

We’ve changed up the substances we build shelter with before. There was a time when we used lead for pipes and paint until we found out about its effects on our physiology. We used asbestos for insulation until we found out that it’s a microscopic needle that can punch your ticket to cancer town.

That lead paint and asbestos from older houses is also floating around in our air right now. Don’t think so? Well, first consider that asbestos is considered highly heat-resistant. Secondly consider this leaf that fell from the sky in San Francisco around midnight on Sunday, October 8.

Hey little buddy. You’re a long way from home…

The point is that we can change how we build our homes in ways that are better or worse in case of fire. One method is earth structures. “Hobbit Huts?” People ask when I mention this, their faces contorted in distaste. Call ’em what you want, buildings made from dirt, cob, clay or adobe are much more resistant to fire than any coated wood.

Furthermore, they don’t require toxic insulating materials and actually stay quite temperate year round. They can also be made with living roofs of grass or gardens.

Traditional Hidatsa Earth Lodge

To go see an example in person, visit the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, CA. This center for alternatives to conventional housing is considering offering fire preparedness classes. Planting perimeter gardens of plants like lettuce that store water could help us stave off future fires.

You can also check out the work of local Petaluma artist Miguel Elliot.

Oh yeah, by the way: whatdy’all got against Hobbit Huts?! They look super cozy. Heck, the Hobbiton set in New Zealand is even a major tourist attraction now.


2. Check, Please

The one thing about tragedy that’s spectacular to witness is the way we come to one another’s aid when the chips are down. People really pull together, planning benefits, offering their homes to strangers, asking each other: “How can I help?” The Redwood Credit Union Community Fund alone has raised over $3 million.

As a community, we already have some amazing emergency services in place to help one another. Firefighters, police and paramedics are doing real-life heroics, saving homes, farms and wildlife.

But once the smoke settles, once the fires are out — even after home owner’s insurance shells out for reconstruction — well, that medical bill for the burns? That asthma prescription? That cast for the broken arm or twisted ankle while running from the fire? These costs are gonna come out of the pockets of individuals.

We’ll have benefits for these people, we’ll rescue each other yet again. So we’re obviously willing to help one another. But why don’t we do it all the time? What about the person that was burned badly — but not during this fire? Are they somehow not worthy of our care, too?

To look at it another way: what if we had to pay premiums for firefighter insurance? What if emergency services checked your account before cutting a fire-brake line around your house? “Hmmm, looks like the Johnson’s didn’t pay their bill. Oh well, too bad. Looks like their cat’s in there. On to the next house boys!”

Furthermore, a lot of the brave men and women fighting these fires will come down with life-changing ailments as a result of inhaling the toxic smoke (We’ve seen this with the first responders from New York’s World Trade Towers tragedy). Depending on their standing with their employers and their medical insurance when symptoms arise — possibly years from now — they could potentially go broke paying their medical bills. That’s just not right.

The California State Senate is currently considering a universal health care reform called the Healthy California Act (SB 562). It is tabled for the year but could be reintroduced in January and fast-tracked if there’s support.


3. How Do You Like It?

Wearing a face mask sucks! The rubber bands get caught in your hair. My mustache gets all smooshed up in my nostrils. And how the hell are you supposed to stay caffeinated with these things on?! Pour the coffee in your eye?!

Well, that will wake you up…

But seriously, (or still seriously), none of us wants to spend our days in an N-95 particle-filter breathing mask. But guess what? That’s where we’re headed. There are already a number of large cities on this planet where pollution is bad enough that wearing a dust mask is just daily attire. Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Los Angeles all have days when it’s inadvisable to go outside without a mask.

We know the things we need to change to stop this from becoming the norm. Public transit, electric vehicles, bicycles, reduced consumption, yada, yada. But who wants to do all that hippy bullshit? Let’s all just get used to going through life like this:

The McPocolypts family outing.

Like it or not, we have a long road ahead of us. As we rebuild and think about the future, we have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past.

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is drawn to art, bikes, song and drink like the proverbial moth to the moth-heroin. He plays music, tends bar, and makes silly animations. In addition to writing for he's appeared in several publications, including MotoSpirit, SF Bay Guardian, Motorcyclist magazine, SF Weekly, and The Kiteboarder. Check him out at