How to Save Homes From Ferocious Fires

Some simple solutions might save entire California communities

How to Save Homes From Ferocious Fires
81-year old Hank Hanson gestures to the kitchen of his home, destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex fires, in Vacaville, Calif., on Aug. 21, 2020. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)
The Reader's Turn

From earthquakes to fires, Southern California is a danger zone.

Suppose every house in SoCal had a sprinkler system, plumbed with metal pipe not PVC, running to the rooftop. Water could be stored in a cistern, much like those the ancient Romans used. Where would this water come from, you ask? During heavy rainfalls, as occurred last winter, the water would be saved, not lost, not allowed to run down channels into the Pacific Ocean.

All over Switzerland, one can see thousands of water fountains, according to a 2017 article on blog Marginal Revolution: “Elegant yes, but if and when central water systems are destroyed these fountains are a decentralized and robust system for providing everyone with drinkable water.”

Imagine having water in abundance nearby to fight a cataclysmic fire. Hillside houses worth many millions could have such a system designed into it for a fraction of the cost of replacing the structure. Wealthier clients could have the system run directly from their swimming pools, powered by electricity, along with an emergency secondary gas or electric diesel generator.

Middle-class neighborhoods like Paradise or Santa Rosa could have one (or more) large, centrally located water tank. Sprinklers could run to the rooftop of every home. Children would sleep safe and stress-free, knowing their home is safe from fire. A state like California, that prides itself on social responsibility, should consider community projects such as these. Taxpayers should have their homes protected. With billions of dollars to devote to sports complexes and high-speed rail projects, certainly a few million can be found to fight devastating fires that wreck entire communities and destroy lives.

Thus, wouldn’t preventive measures be in order now? Not only would these small, above-ground, emergency water reservoirs serve in a fire emergency, providing rooftop sprinklers for scores of homes, but the freshwater would be there as an emergency in an earthquake. Larger earthquakes, the so-called Big One, with the power to shift fault lines several feet, will break water lines like spaghetti. Repairs might take several days or even weeks. Critics may claim that no water can be stored during prolonged droughts but, surprisingly, water can be found for golf courses, car washes, and rice production in California.

During spring break, students could be recruited to clear brush in exchange for free college credits or student loan reduction. An ounce of fire prevention is worth a thousand gallons of water, as old firefighters say. Brush clearance is prevention. Similar to the old Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), these kids would be serving their community and having fun and getting fresh air, too. Even old guys like me might volunteer. After all, better that the hills are alive with the sound of music and adolescent laughter, rather than the roar of flames, the stench of death, and the smell of smoke.

Douglas Herman
Douglas Alan Herman, a certified firefighter and commercial fisherman, has worked 30 summers in Alaska and wrote, directed, and produced the feature film “Caution to The Wind” (2010).
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