Water tank

TANKED: My brand new 3,000-gallon tank, which didn't save me a cent in fire insurance premiums.

I was getting accustomed to life with Covid-19 when the 2020 fire season reared its flaming, smoky head.

Last week a barrage of lightning strikes ignited fires that blackened nearly a million acres in California. The skies became thick with smoke. Then the Moc Fire broke out, bringing flames and evacuations to our doorstep. 

Scheduling my next Corona test plummeted to the bottom of my to-do list. I worried about saving my ass first. 

Welcome to summer in California. You’re right, fall begins in just weeks – but it will likely be worse. 

The Oakland Hills (1991) burned in October, Santa Rosa (2017) went up in October and Paradise (2018) was demolished in early November. 

By early autumn, California’s timber and brush are bone dry. And now the state’s ever-expanding fire season is heading relentlessly toward Thanksgiving. 

And winter? Well, it’s OK.  Unless your fire insurance, like mine, comes due right after the first of the year. 

If it does, you may be non-renewed, cancelled or face stratospheric premium increases.  

Don’t believe it? Lloyds of London has insured Betty Grable’s legs ($1 million) and Dolly Parton’s breasts ($2 million apiece). But after covering my Yankee Hill home for just one year, the folks at Lloyds decided that Grable’s and Parton’s assets were far better risks. 

They non-renewed me. 

A year later, another carrier-of-last-resort again non-renewed me. Now I’m covered by the CalFair plan, set up by the state for the otherwise uninsurable. 

My premiums? Don’t even ask. 

I’m miles away from a fire station, miles away from a hydrant and surrounded by brush and timber that’s been growing and drying out for years. I’m near the Columbia Air Attack Base, but that somehow doesn’t count. 

My annual insurance bills are high enough that this spring I installed a 3,000-gallon water tank with a fire-hydrant standpipe. I hoped that might cut my premium. It didn’t. 

Now I’m thinking about a moat. 

At this point some readers might expect a tirade on how greedy and unscrupulous insurance companies are and how fire danger here on Yankee Hill really isn’t that high. 

That would be a lie. At least the fire-danger part would be.  

I’m in the line of fire up here on the Yankee Hill and have been for decades. Check out these close calls: 

1977: It was my second summer on the hill. Yes, I knew about fire – but figured it would never happen to me. 

Then a guy at the wheel of a huge pickup truck came up our driveway, lost. My housemate and I were used to this and told him how to get to Twain Harte. “But don’t back up onto that dry grass when you turn around,” I warned. “You could start a fire.” 

So he backed up on the dry grass and started a fire. Within minutes, the flames were 20 feet high in the nearby ponderosa pines. I frantically called 911. I had never seen anything like this growing up in suburban Chicago. 

The operator said Cal Fire (then CDF) would be right on it. Minutes passed, the pickup went up in flames, and the fire spread. Then I heard the droning of a Columbia Air Attack Base bomber. Then, suddenly and at very low altitude, the plane was on us. It unleashed a crimson cloud of retardant, and the fire was out in the blink of an eye.

“A miracle!” I thought, little suspecting at the time that Cal Fire’s bombers would save my property again and again. 

Postscript: The idiot in the pickup truck had borrowed it from his boss without asking, and was fired. Also, my ’68 Mustang convertible, its top down, was in the bomber’s line of fire. I spent hours scrubbing the pink slime from its interior, but I was happy to do it. 

1994: We were on a Santa Cruz beach vacation with the kids when our house sitter called. “There’s a fire coming up the hill!” she said, her voice trembling. “What should I take from the house?” 

“Yourself,” I answered, sensing her panic. “Don’t worry about anything else. Get out of there right now!” She did. 

Then, with the sun setting and vacationing friends taking care of our children, we drove back home in a panic. Four hours later, we arrived to a post-apocalyptic scene: Our house had survived, but was shrouded in acrid smoke and the glow of nearby flames penetrated the midnight sky. 

The last air-attack drop of the day, it turned out, had saved our home from the 1,400-acre Creek Fire.  A friend with a trailer had rescued our two llamas, and neighbors had stood watch. 

Another bullet dodged. 

2007: I woke up at 3 a.m. to the smell of smoke. Had I left something in the oven? The oven was off, but my daughter, Hallie, was up. “You smell that?” I asked. She sniffed: “I do smell something,” she said. 

I walked down our driveway. Deep in the Stanislaus canyon I saw a glow.  Then, as I went back to wake the family, a Cal Fire truck drove up my driveway.  

“We can take a stand here,” Battalion Chief Barry Rudolph told me. “You’ve done a good job clearing. But you need to evacuate.” 

Set by marijuana growers burning a crop, the fire climbed all the way from Italian Bar to Yankee Hill Road before crews deployed from throughout Northern California stopped it. I spent the day at work while my family holed up in a motel. We returned, safe, at nightfall. 

There were cans and sandwich wrappers on our deck. A Cal Fire crew had indeed taken a stand. 

To this day, the tracks of dozers that fought the Italian Fire indent the Yankee Hill Road pavement. But the rumble of crossing them in my car doesn’t bother me at all.

So I’ve logged three very close calls, and consider myself lucky. 

I’ve had two very close friends who were not so lucky: Pete and Debbie Sinding’s home burned to the ground in a 2007 Thanksgiving Day fire in the Malibu hills. And Dick and Mary Anderson’s Calaveritas home was razed by 2015’s Butte Fire. 

The Sindings rebuilt (a nearly five-year process), but now spend most of their time at a new home above Port Angeles, Washington. The Andersons rented a house in Arnold, then bought it. But they have also built a cabin on their recovering Calaveritas property. 

So is it only a matter of time for me? Am I out of close calls? 

This week I’m having the original gutters in my nearly 30-year-old home replaced. And, yes, it occurs to me in my most fatalistic moments that a fire may destroy my house before those gutters catch even a drop of rain. 

I don’t make a secret of it: I hate fire, and it scares the hell out of me. 

How much do I hate it? I’d rather cover a Tuolumne Utilities District meeting than a blaze. Late in my Union Democrat career, in fact, I asked that a “No-Nomex clause” – exempting me from coverage of all future wildfires – be added to my contract. 

The editor told me I had no contract and had to do what she said.  

But now that I’m retired, why do I stay here in the heart of wildfire country? 

Yes, I was a newcomer here in the mid-1970s.  But now it’s become home. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. And it’s where my friends are.

Plus, I know the risks and try to minimize them: I clear my brush each year. My address sign is in plain view. Every time I hear a bomber or chopper go over, I go check the Cal Fire or UD websites. My neighbors are setting up a fire-drill phone network. 

I know the escape routes and have a go-bag of essentials ready at the door. On the wall above it is a list of other stuff to grab if I have time. More flammable valuables are safe at a storage locker in Sonora. 

Plus, if I do leave the Mother Lode, where would I go? 

The Gulf or Atlantic coasts, under constant hurricane threat? The Midwest’s Tornado Alley?  The bone-deep chill of the Dakotas?

Some swampy place so humid you couldn’t start a fire with a blowtorch? Buffalo, Detroit or Chicago, hammered by blizzards every winter? The perpetually drenched Pacific Northwest? The 115-degree oven that is Arizona? 

I could continue this long list of places I would not live, but I have to go out and start digging my moat.

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