The California Fires, October, 2017

By Lloyd and Lesley Kahn

Saturday morning October 14th

We went to bed last Sunday night with no inkling of what was happening. About 3 AM, a fierce wind started blowing and we smelled smoke. At daybreak we learned that it came from fires some 60 miles away, mostly in neighboring Sonoma county. It’s been a grim week.

Everyone seems to know people or have relatives that have lost their homes. My brother was luckier than most with his farm in the Napa Valley: he lost a barn, tractor, Toyota Tacoma, and an accessory building, but his house was OK. He has 2,000 olive trees and they were not burned, but he’s not sure if they’ll be ruined by the smoke. It was his biggest crop ever.

Local radio stations have devoted large parts of their programs to the catastrophe; this morning there are 21 separate fires. There’s speculation they could have been started by 50 mile per hour northeastern winds knocking trees down onto power lines, exacerbated by a long drought, which weakened trees, followed by a wet year, a lot of vegetation and dry hot weather in recent months. The winds catapult embers along, and fires are said to outrun humans.

Refugees have flooded south. Many of them await news anxiously to see if their homes have been destroyed. This weekend looks ominous. Sunrise was a deep red this morning. We can smell smoke inside our house, and it’s coming from 60 miles away. The sky this morning looks like a science fiction movie of the apocalypse.

Fire and earthquakes have always been part of the California cycle. It’s the other side of our paradise of warm weather and fertile soil. In the old days, fires happened regularly, burning out underbrush periodically. The Native Americans incorporated it into their cycle, sometimes setting fires to clear brush so grass would grow and attract animals to hunt and to clear land for planting. These days we’re so good at preventing (most) fires that forests become tinder boxes of fuel.

While big storms can be tracked and predicted, fires strike with no warning—no time to plan, to get ready. Saving lives is of utmost importance, but homes, records, papers, and belongings will have to be resurrected or replaced in months and years to come.

Having worked for over 40 years in helping people build their own homes, our thoughts are with all those who will have to start rebuilding their lives. I wish there were some way we could communicate our experience in building small, simple homes to those who will be rebuilding. For those who do not have adequate insurance, it seems especially important to consider the advantages of scaling back and simplifying.

The effort of first responders continues to be truly inspirational. Even those who have themselves lost everything are participating in fighting to save the homes and lives of neighbors. Aid is being rushed in and will be needed for some time to come

Evacuees have been pouring into the small towns of West Marin. Local homeowners have taken people in, made soup, donated clothing and are helping in many ways. It’s heartening to see such actions.

The people will survive and new homes will rise out of the ashes.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

5 Responses to The California Fires, October, 2017

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts. This is a tragedy on many levels. Bless the first responders. I hope when people reach the time when they will be rebuilding their lives and homes, they will take your advice and consider the go-smaller option.

  2. Lloyd/Leslie
    Glad to hear how things are going. Have been worried about you folks. I fervently hope that is as close as it gets to you folks.

    Will keep you in my thoughts, and say a prayer for you. I am not so much a religious person, but, as the saying goes, even a disbeliever will ask God for help if he falls over a cliff…

  3. Glad to know you and Lesley are doing ok so far. Smoke has been bad in Colorado this year. Stay safe you are one of my hero's! Support for all the first responders working so hard to fight the fires.

  4. All this while I have had you'se in my thoughts…never thought such worries would come even close to me (in Calgary, Alberta).

    Yesterday there was some weird wind system, that had winds all through province of Alberta (and Saskatchewan) at up to about 100 mph. Bad enough, but then, there started to be all sorts of grassfires. HUGE grassfires, in sort of a circle (fair ways from) surrounding Calgary. Calgary was not at risk, but many small towns and farms and homes were/Evacuations etc..

    One life lost, and many homes lost.

    At least one was started by a cigarette tossed from a vehicle…

    Airdrie wildfire caused by tossed cigarette, say officials

    Wildfires take tragic toll with death of firefighter, loss of homes in rural Alberta

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