|Dear Corporate Donors, Charitable Foundations, Web Surfers and Video Committee Members,|
The mission that I have chosen to accept is to create a video about wild fire in suburbia. My goal is to assemble a team of specialists and prevent it from happening on a massive scale. I've had my share of joys and frustrations with this project over the years. Not that I've had any difficulty getting people to talk off-camera on the subject. I've just chosen a really difficult topic.
Let's leave it at that and just say that this web site supports a modest video project that a former chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club once called dangerous, that the local wood shingle roofing industry vehemently opposes in public forums (despite clear conflicts of interest) and that the California Department of Forestry probably still considers too hot to handle.
A drip torch spreads the flames
on this control burn. This site was
chosen partly because the high proportion of native grases on the
hillside made it a good candidate for grasslands restoration and partly
because its strategic location along the ridgeline made it a good place
to stop a fire coming up the hill. The use of fire as a tool to reduce
exotic grasses is highly controversial, even among botanists.
Kids, don't try this at home. To me, it's just all in a days work. Although it seems that homeowners would rather commit mass suicide that learn arithmetic, I have no illusions of making it big in Hollywood like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. My goal in life is to live simply and die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did.....and not screaming in terror like his passengers.
I am by nature a risk taker and this project is just the latest gamble I've taken with my career. I am a phone line installer by trade, a writer by temperament and want to learn to write with pictures. Where else would I have the chance to write (and post for general inspection) the Great American Screenplay?
They say that if you want big money you go to Wall Street. If
you want big time power then you go to Washington. If you want them both, mixed
in the same deadly cocktail, then you go to Hollywood....by train... with me
at the throttle. Is there genius, magic and power in boldness? I think so. "Bartender,
pour me a double!"
Speaking for myself, I can see another suburban holocaust in my mind's eye just like it has already happened. Already this Summer, an expensive home in Woodside has been damaged by a eucalyptus fueled forest fire. On Friday, August 9th, a tree branch falling onto a power line off Albion Road sparked a six alarm fire that roared through 4 acres of dry grass, brush and trees. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. My question is this, regarding the house that was damaged by the fire, "Were wood shingles a contributing factor?" I think the answer is regretably, "Yes". Another fire in Croy Canyon, west of Morgan Hill, destroyed over thirty homes. Again, neglect of the surrounding vegetation contributed to the loss of property.
Speaking for the rest of you homeowners, did you know that fire department training tapes like "Fire in the Interface" have already been distributed to fire stations and are designed to help pumper truck captains decide where to make a stand? Fire captains have already been trained to make snap decisions using defensible space criteria to judge homes that are worth defending in the face of a fast moving brushfire, versus homes that should be written off.
Defensible space in the form of
a manicured hillside takes the place
of a wall of solid greenery. Succulent grasses and shoots will soon
provide nourishing food for rabbits and deer. The author spent a good
portion of the summer of '97 preparing to lead a crew to do this work
on the Thornewood Estate Preserve in the Woodside Hills. The event
was actually organized throught the auspices of Community Impact.
The problem is that many home owners remain blissfully ignorant of this desperate fallback firefighting tactic and fire insurance companies aren't in a hurry to let anyone tell them. The fact is that the cupped hands you're in, really aren't so good and the best fire equipment in the world will be swept aside like so many toys in the wind when mother nature decides to hold a rompin' stompin' suburban forest fire through the beautifully leafy, hilly neighborhoods of this county. Thus we are reminded that there are no answers to nature's persistant questions. Only choices.
On the brighter side, an attractive and very brave woman firefighter by the name of Katy, took a look at the San Mateo County Fire Safe Committee's officially sanctioned fire prevention video entitled, "Bear Facts" and pointed out some virtues of the film that the author had overlooked. According to Katy, the difficulty firemen have in finding homes at night is indeed a common problem and this is highlighted in the video in a way that homeowners can't help but notice. And, as Katy graciously pointed out, the video does make numerous recommendations for protecting a home in an "entertaining" way.
As for the target audience and the "motivational factor", however, we disagree. For starters, there is no mention of the environment at all and with only 50 copies for (internal?) distribution the cumulative effect on fuel loads on private and county land in this county will probably be small. Furthermore, with the fire up in Pt. Reyes, in terms of general distribution, their timing for releasing this video could not have been worse. So, as movie critics we are split. Her professional thumb goes up and my amateur thumb goes down. Thank you Katy Z. , for your contribution to this project and good luck with the "critical incident stress debriefing" career hopes.
Background/Bear FactsVideo/Inmate Work Crews
Neither of us are in a position to know how the County and the public have responded to the San Mateo County Fire Safe Committee's video but I do think the Diablo Fire Safe Committee is ready to make a more serious film. They know as well as I do that this is the video that can save the lives of their crews when the hills are ablaze. (Didn't firemen invent the phrase, "Pre-planning and positive public relations prevents poor performances"?)
The Cannonball Express also differs from Bear Facts in a significant way. Bear Facts may help a home owner save his own home. The Cannonball Express will help a homeowner association save their whole neighborhood. This is the macro approach to the problem. To use an analogy.... sometimes a teacher has to drill information into a student's head. And sometimes a teacher has to encourage a student to consciously unlearn something that blocks progress. And if "the student" isn't learning despite valiant and repeated attempts by the teacher then maybe the fault is not with "the student". Either the curriculum has to change or the teacher doesn't know how to teach.
I believe our teachers have mastered the curriculum. This is what makes teaching an art form. Therefore, the problem must be with the existing fire prevention curriculum. What we have tried to do with the script for "The Cannonball Express" is to joyfully stomp on the myth that thick brush is a barrier to fire. Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, heavy fuel loads are not natural, thick brush makes marginal wildlife habitat worse and allowing grasslands to be covered with brush won't bring back a forest that was, for all intents and purposes in this epoch, never there to begin with.
Despite the many positive changes that came out of the 1991 disaster,
when and if we do have another Berkeley Hills type fire in the Bay Area, the
fire experts know that it will be ultimately controlled when the weather conditions
change. (i.e. When the fog rolls in.) Firemen in Marin County know from computer
simulations that they could lose 7,000 acres IN THE FIRST HOUR of a major
fire on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. A fire like that is going to make the evening
Reading between the lines, I suspect that the fuel load situation in many parts of San Mateo County means that similar conclusions have already been drawn here by the local fire authorities. So I have to step back into my role as prophet of doom and beg the question. What will it take? Another holocaust? Do we have to remain one step away from a celebrity death before we find a solution to this problem?
My email address is .My new phone number is and unless the power goes out during a storm you should be able to reach me or leave a message on my machine. And I can always be reached by snail mail at
Steven P. Kennedy
The Project / Politics Involved / Environmental Concerns / Thank You