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The Script

East Bay Hills Version
Script / Screenplay

Copyright © 1994 by Steven P. Kennedy   Revised 2003

Storyboard Sketches by:

Alex Mizuno


Alison Jeffs

Synopsis: A docudrama, The Cannonball Express is the story of Jessie and Helen, their dream house in the hills and how they learned to protect it from fire.

The Cannonbal acoustic guitar theme
was composed by Gerald McMullin...
mp3 file

Beginning of Script

Title Sequence (Developing Interest) Credits roll...music accompanies a monochrome computer program called BEHAVE Burn Subsection-which shows the flame length tables responding as different values for ambient temperature, wind speed, slope, and fuel loads are entered. Sound track- accompanying clicking sounds of a keyboard.


Fire Marshal's narration begins- "This county is a beautiful place isn't it? Where else can you find such beautiful natural scenery so close to the high tech jobs of Silicon Valley?

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Not surprisingly, many computer professionals have chosen to build big custom homes and live here in the forests, valleys and hills of the Diablo Range. They say that one man's dream is another man's nightmare and for fire marshals like me, this neighborhood is a billion dollar nightmare waiting to happen. I know from experience that this forest and these homes could all be gone tomorrow. With most working homeowners here concentrating on the next product release, the upcoming quarterly report and the bottom line, we've concluded that a more imaginative approach to fire safety is needed. While this low budget fire safety video can't match the astounding visual effects of a Hollywood blockbuster like, "The Matrix", we all know what it is like to be controlled by forces we cannot name, but sense are omniscient. Having said that, I'll quit preaching to the choir, forego the usual lecture on defensible space and give you something beautiful instead. We're sure that Neo, Trinity and Morpheus would approve. So climb aboard The Cannonball Express and enjoy the show."

Second Narrator: (Voice Over) (Stock black and white footage of a steam train in the distance, color shots of burned land and recovering forests.) Trains are a lot like suburban brush fires. They come and go in the wink of an eye yet the memory of their passing lives on long after the smoke has cleared.

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Prologue-Scene Four (Introducing the protagonist)

(Jessie-scowling) Ahh, waiter! What was that?

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Waiter-beaming) That was The Cannonball Express, an historic steam engine, Sir. Wasn't she beautiful? Did you miss our announcement?

(Jessie-indignant) What announcement? The waiter could have told us....

((Helen) recovering/pleading) Would you stop that...I'm fine...just a little too much coffee.

(Jessie-angrily) Coffee! Well I don't drink coffee and I'm awake now!

(Helen) calmer but sternly) Jessie, I think its time we had a little talk.....about us.....about our future. I used to think you were such a hopeless romantic. I loved it. You'd take me to the beach....the tide would come in and we'd be stuck for six hours against a cliff on a sliver of beach that kept shrinking. I was young then and rules were made to be broken. Or you'd take me up to Tahoe. ...and of course there's a blizzard and we'd get snowed in for three days....and I'm not done yet....which was fun when we were dating but we're married now and I'm beginning to think I'm outgrowing you.

And now, for reasons I can't figure out, you've doubled my commute time and tossed our life savings into a little place up in the hills and you know what? You can't even pitch a tent in the woods. Well, let me tell you something, I'd be a fool if  lost everything  to some...forest fire...and had to start over again with nothing. And now you tell me you can't even get decent fire insurance on this place because the insurance companies have redlined the whole neighborhood. It just doesn't make sense.

(Jessie-thinking fast) They haven't red lined it...they're just limiting their exposure and anyway, Honey, who cares? Orinda is a great place to raise our family. It is beautiful there and its quiet.....and I know I'm not exactly a tree hugger when it comes to nature but hey anybody can learn, right sweet heart?

((Helen) threatening) Yeah, well you better get a good book because.....

(Jessie-Huh, I can do better than that....I've got some friends from volleyball and they'll be glad to....

(Helen) Well give me a report at dinnertime and don't come home drunk as a skunk....Listen, I've got some errands to run and then I'm going shopping. (She gets up, pulls a bill from her purse) And tip the waiter, will ya?


Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Jessie-calling to her in vain) Hel-ennn.... all right, so I'll call in a few markers that's all. (to himself) I got friends that know this stuff. I help them fix their computers don't I ? I've gotten their butts out of a jam at least once. (Guilty tone) I knew I should have done it myself instead of walking them through it by phone. If I hadn't been so busy.... and they know the house I'm buying is a fire trap. The ad said cozy and quaint didn't it? I thought she loved the place. (With resignation) I should have stayed in Cleveland where all you have to worry about is twisters. (Pulls out cell phone as bus boy clears table.) (muttering darkly) California you are a...

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Act One-Scene Four (The Brush Cutter's Lesson)

The camera pans a brushy hillside with a view of suburbia.

(Teo) Hi Jessie. Pull up a chair. (points to ice chest) Thanks for stopping by. That Windows 2000 is the greatest. Plug and Play is just super. Thanks for helping me out there.

(Teo) Hey, no problem. (modestly)

(Teo) (Mops brow with handkerchief) Man, I could use a breather. (Takes sip of water from canteen, sits down at crude table and starts working on a tri-corner weed whacker blade with a mill file.) So, how's the fixer upper?

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Jessie) Oh, pretty good. It needs work.

(Teo) Don't they all.

(Jessie) (with resignation) And mine especially. I can think of a lot of things I should have noticed on the first walk through. The worst thing is, the wife figures she can paint everything because she's liberated but I'm a lazy city slicker and can't take care of the landscaping. The smoke detector is beeping every two minutes all night long and she's worried about fire danger.

(Teo) Well try a new battery in the smoke detector and we'll make a six  pack gardener out of you yet. Beer?

(Jessie) (Looks at camera mouthing the words, "Me?") Thanks but I just had breakfast. Listen, I gotta ask a favor. I need to learn about "habitat values" and fast. She's got this nesting instinct and all the brush around the place makes her nervous.

(Teo) Well, you came to the right place buddy old pal. Look around you. This place was as bad as yours. If you use just hand tools and  you and your wife work together and do it smart, it'd take, maybe a weekend at most. Three days tops. I could do it for you for a couple hundred bucks but I'm booked solid through mid-September and the County would be on your case by then.  So do the most important thing first. Get a ladder, clean out the rain gutters to keep the sparks away from the rafters, talk to your neighbors and check the yellow pages and the web. And it wouldn't hurt to have some plywood covers cut for the windows just in case. Bring in the dimensions and the clerks at Home Depot will do that for you. (Puts file down to gesture) Look at this job...

(Jessie) It makes me tired just looking at it.

(Teo) Yeah, I figure another three hours on this project and I'll have this one clean as a whistle. And then it's on to another project in Dublin and then to Martinez for another. If I didn't have a way to do this methodically I'd be exhausted. Working smart makes me look professional, reliable and indispensable, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, that's why I'm booked solid for weeks. Otherwise, I'd come down and help you out myself.

(Jessie) Well, just tell me how ya do it.

(Teo) It didn't come easy. Some of these homeowners have handed me projects large enough to experiment with different methods. So when I first look at the lot I'll decide if it can be mulched on site or has to be hauled away, depending on what's growing.  Then, if I decide we're gonna haul it away, I add a couple hours for the labor it takes to haul the brush we've cut down to the truck. I usually figure one hour of cutting the brush makes for two hours of loading it up and hauling it away. On this project I've rigged up a cable and pulley system to skid piles of brush across the hillside and then down to my truck. Come on, I'll show you how it works.

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Scenes of hauling, winching, and chain sawing through the pile of brush in the dump truck. Cliff returns to table and sits down.)

(Teo) Sometimes, depending on how heavy the fuel is, I'll weed whack it and leave the twigs and leaves and other chop on top of the soil like a mulch. That's the best technique for winter time erosion control and it does keep the flame lengths down if a fire does come through. I just found this to be so much faster than chipping the brush, you know.....one branch at a time (gesturing) "zing-zing".

(Jessie) And chippers are expensive.

(Teo) Yeah, $300 a day for a trailer mounted one. That's why I prefer hauling it away. No muss no fuss.

(Jessie) And no credit card debt.

(Teo) Right! Too soon old and too late smart.

(Jessie) And no major erosion from the wheels on the trailer either. Teo, I got to hand it to you....

(Teo) It's just experience, lots of experience...... They say there might be Berkeley kangaroo rats around here, which until recently, have been presumed extinct. And then I guess some guy's cat dragged one in and he reported it (after tossing it in the trash of course) to a game warden he met weeks later while out fishing. Duh! So maybe there is and maybe there ain't and maybe Elvis is hanging out with James Dean. One things for sure though.....

(Jessie) What's that?

(Teo) Cats sure kill a lot of wildlife.....songbirds, voles, salamanders, lizards, sea otters. There must be 500 cats per square mile down there on the flats.

(Jessie) Sea otters?

(Teo) You know how doctors say that pregnant women shouldn't empty litter boxes because of toxoplasmosis? A feral cat poops in the sand by the river, the river floods and washes the poop out to the ocean, the otter picks up the disease and hasn't got a chance, what with it's habitat already degraded from over fishing and pesticide residue. Autopsies on mature sea offers have confirmed it. You ever try to stick a pill down the throat of a sea otter?

(Jessie) I'd never thought about that before.

(Teo) So if the local kangaroo rats have slipped through the cracks then good for them. The last thing I'd do if I saw one would be to tell some kid who wants one for his hampster cage........"Look Mom, its a mini 'roo!" (Pauses to reflect)......

  Ya know, my business card says I'm a tree cutter but that gives people the wrong impression.

(Jessie) That you're a not a *&%# disturber?

(Teo) No

(Jessie) That you're a lumberjack with an ax of evil ?

(Teo) Guffaws. No 'cause actually I consider myself to be in a growth industry (smiles) called vegetation management. I'm being paid by the homeowner (gestures) to reduce the risk that a fire might roar up the hill and take out his house right?

(Jessie) Right!

(Teo)  And what ever is there is gonna come back.

(Jessie)  ok

(Teo) And so unless there is some plants or shrubs that the homeowner specifically wants us to work around and is willing to flag with orange streamers, we'll chop and mulch everything. Its kind of a crew cut.

(Jessie) Yep!

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

A Folk Song::                       Listen to a happy tune while you read.

This is a story called, "The Cannonball Express",
a woman called Helen and her flaky husband Jess
and then over breakfast they were having a fight
and this old train gave 'em a terrible fright,
scared that is, sur-prised, heavy metal!

Well, the first thing you know old Jess is Britain Shicks;
should'a spent more time, A HANGING OUT WITH HICKS!
And that's why he learns how to clear some brush
been fighting with his wife-he's in a big rush.
Teo that is, Don Coyne, experts in the field.

This couple bought a house, Lawdy it was grand
their next door neighbor, earned millions in a band
no firemen objected but their friends was all perturbed
'cause their old house was heavily insured.
Cash that is, federal loan guarantees, rebuilding money

Well now its time to clear away the brush and all the weeds
they are being careful for the birds and all the bees
You'll be invited back soon to watch this video
wish Good Luck! to Jess 'cause he'll be a daddy-oh
Jessie Junior that is
healthy set of lungs!
Want some ear plugs?
Ya'll be safe, hear!

Comin' soon...the MP3 version.

(Teo) (Pointing) Take that dead oak  with the streamer on it for example. The homeowner is a bird watcher and history buff and wanted us to leave it in place. His thinking is like this. It was tall and strong when the Spaniards arrived. When it was a seedling, the local Indians weeded around its base and for generations knocked off dead branches with long poles to stimulate growth and harvested the acorns. Now, he tells me that a new pathogen called SODS ahh..Sudden Oak. Death Syndrome has killed it and a couple thousand others in counties all over the State and I shouldn't even haul it away for firewood. So, I'll cut the rest of the  limbs off and lay them across the hillside for erosion control. But the trunk is kind of scenic and it will make for great habitat for snakes, owls and woodpeckers for the next hundred years. I hate to see a great tree die too but that's the way it is now. Never an equilibrium.  Always two organisms in tension with one another.  A whole ecosystem in flux and the natives usually losing out.  (Heavy branch snaps off with a loud crack! and falls nearby with a thud.)

(Jessie) Whoa!

(Teo) (Angrily to the tree) A widow maker. That's the risk I take for being a professional.

(Jessie-laughs) That's Mother Nature. Why didn't we accidentally bring in something that would kill poison oak?

(Teo) Go figure.. .... poison oak and oak trees. (Heavy sigh) Now there's a combination. I use lanolin on my skin and I usually set up a gravity fed solar heated shower right on the job site.

(Jessie) Good idea.

(Teo) Fortunately most of the oil that you got to worry about is in the leaves   which turn red and then fall off in the winter. If it wasn't for the poison oak I could burn some of this brush in piles but there's a permitting process and its just more hassle than its' worth.

(Jessie) More red tape.

(Teo) Yep. When I started on this project it was really brushy here. I've already made several trips to the dump and now  with this weed whacking its' starting to look pretty good. I told the homeowner I could make it look like a park. Look how steep this hill is. When I'm done clearing I'll reseed it with wildflowers in some of the sunny areas. (Makes throwing motion as if scattering seeds). I'll use packets of seeds they got for sale at the Regional Botanical Garden that have been locally gathered by trained botanists rather than get a grab bag at Vinyard Supply that has seed from all over the West and that might just be contaminated with weed seed.

(Jessie) That'll look nice. But the homeowner will have to water them right?

(Teo) Yeah. And most of them forget. I'm not a gardener. I'd rather be a maintenance man. If the homeowner wants natives planted to take the place of weeds and brush then that's extra and I'd rather not mess with it. Most of what I've taken out here has been noxious weeds and it will be back from the seed bank.  The bulk of the fuel load has been Scotch broom, Himalaya berry, poison oak, coyote brush, stickey monkey flower and wild oats. In terms of monocultures, the Scotch broom, the wild oats, and thehimalaya berry are the worst exotics and shoot.... this county loses more plant and wildlife habitat every year to exotic invasives than to developers putting in homes and roads. The birds love to eat those big black berries and so under every power line there is a steady rain of weed seeds in a convenient little fertilizer pack. We just don't have any native insects or animals that go to town on broom. Bug scientists have brought some species over from the old country and released them but there still aren't enough of these bugs to do the job. To do the job right they'd have to bring over a whole ecosystem, nuke the bugs 'til they're sterile and watch to see what else they'd eat. So ahh, broom looks nice. Its got a pretty yellow flower that bees like.... but it just takes over. And on a hot day the seedpods spread seeds with a forty year shelf life like popcorn popping. Anyway, what natives that do grow back here will attract deer and rabbits with succulent new growth.

(Jessie) Oh, my wife just loves seeing the deer.

(Teo) I'm also trying to ease up on the clearing just short of the property line so it doesn't have that stark empty look. It doesn't bother me that the guy next door wouldn't go for it. A good quilt of cleared and uncleared land makes for patchiness which can be very rich biologically. I keep thinking that I'll see an Alameda whip snake some time but I never have. I bet more of 'em get run over by cars than killed by people like me clearin' brush. So they are either very rare, very well camouflaged or very shy. In any case, whipsnakes do better with an open canopy where its sunny and warm enough for them to snack on fence lizards and grass hoppers. If you ever see a black snake with a yellow stripe that tries to impersonate a king cobra-that's a whipsnake and they're not poisonous. So I don't worry about them. If they had thumbs and could hold a pen then I'd sign a safe harbor agreement with them. I don't make them homeless and they don't nip me on the leg. What I'm doing is just a little bit of habitat maintenance for them. Anyway, I have cleared a lot of backyards and I have got a map and database on every one of them. Sooner or later I will be back in the neighborhood. Scotch broom tends to come back quickly from seeds dropped the previous year so I'll make a follow up visit in two years to whack the volunteers. The only trees I'm eager to take out are the ones that just don't belong.

(Jessie) Like eucalyptus?

(Teo) Eucalyptus is high on my list. Biologists have proven that whipsnakes will avoid shaded areas underneath eucalyptus trees just because the shaded areas are too cold. All it takes is a couple of degrees to change a habitat to the point of uselessness. The leaves smells good but it is always shedding bark and many native plants just get drowned out by the steady rain of debris. I heard once that eucalyptus created 80% of the fuel that went up in the Oakland Berkeley Hills fire.

(Jessie) I saw that on the news (quick shot of burning eucalyptus forest spliced in).
(Teo) They had a run on saws and loppers at hardware stores all over Berkeley the afternoon of the fire. People were madly taking out bushes and trees from around their houses. That's when opportunity knocked on my door.

(Jessie)  Good timing!

(Teo) And acacia is another beautiful tree but its' an exotic and I'll get the owners permission before taking it out. Once the initial clearing has been done the annual vegetation management is easy. There's no real secret to what I do. A lot of the natives will come back in on their own from the seed bank, birds and squirrels. Just be careful with the power tools and watch out for poison oak.

(Jessie) Been there-done that. (To him self.... hey she forgot about that one!)

(Teo) I know many of my customers will do the annual maintenance themselves from now on but I'll keep tabs on them just to make sure it doesn't get away from them. If I touch bases with 'em once in a while its also good word of mouth advertising. Teo is the cheapest fire insurance around and you know, a stitch in time does save nine.  (stretches and flexes)

(Jessie) Right! And let me know if you need help with a new hard drive or something.

(Teo) I got your number

(Jessie) And the great thing about computers is that you can send a whole lot of Email at once. Have you ever thought about, you know, doing the whole neighborhood at once?

(Teo) I've been thinking about taking some of the projects on the City of Oakland's list. You know, if the homeowner doesn't do it they give him one last chance and then put the work up for bid by guys like me. Then they bill him for it. Right now, there's no shortage of work for an independent like me....

(Jessie)  You mean that you can work any 60 hours of the week you want?

(Teo) At the peak of the season when the days are long and hot, I do. Then it calms down and is really nice in the winter.

(Jessie)  More time for your family.

(Teo)  Yeah, here's a picture of my daughter

(Jessie) Its hard to leave home in the morning, huh?

(Teo) Yeah. (Teo, chuckles, picks up gloves...carefully puts them on and ... picks up his tool and clips into the harness.) And thanks for stopping by.

(Jessie) Thanks for the advice.

(Teo) Oh and uh....do you hear that engine? Excuse me....I gotta make a quick phone call (picks up cell phone and turns his back to the camera-camera pans trees and focuses on birds rustling in the underbrush) Teo finishes call and hangs up). I just had to do that. I knew it was him. Why don't you go talk to Don Coyne? I think you know him through Sierra Club volleyball.

(Jessie) You mean "Sky" Don? Plays on the advanced court?

(Teo) That's him. I know the names of some of the native plants. Don eats them. (laughs) But seriously, he's a talented athlete, outdoorsman, and artist. Talk to this guy and Helen will think you're Euell Gibbons. He sells his sculptures, hand carved stuff, out of wood. He's really quite good. He told me he's been trying to reestablish some native grasses in his backyard. Why don't you go have a chat with him...look for his orange van outside and go through the green gate....

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Jessie) No dueling banjos

(Teo) No....he's a peaceful guy...  don't worry, he's expecting you. It was nice talking to you. And take one of my cards, you never know when you are going to need a tree cutter.

(Jessie) Bye

Teo waves

(end of scene four)

1.      Tree & Yard Service

2.      Davey Tree

3.      Oakland-Berkeley Hills: Fire Safety Clearing Teo Carlone 510-527-7536

4.       (Goats by the hundreds): Brea and Robert McGrew 1-916-757-6265

5.      San Jose and Southern Alameda County: Cliff Murray 408-927-6979

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Act Two Scene Five

The camera pans a superb view of the canyon and the bay, then slowly approaches-from above and behind, a man working on a hillside with a weed eater, methodically sweeping it back and forth in wide arcs. A bamboo rake and blue plastic tarp lay nearby. A brown mineral block sits dissolving on a log. Don shuts off the weed eater as the camera approaches, picks up the rake, and makes eye contact with the camera.)

Sketch by Alison Jeffs

(Don) So you found the place huh?

(Don and Jessie shake hands)

(Jessie) Oh, yeah. It was the only orange van on the block.

(Don) That Teo! Some idiot helps him load Windows 2000 and now he thinks he's a computer wizard. (Mocking voice) I've got plug and play...what have you got Don? Well, I've got a wood chisel and an etch-a-sketch, bone head, and I can make stairways to heaven. So, eat it! (Calming down) Tell me, so you bought this place in the hills...does your wife want to do any gardening?

(Jessie) Well, I suppose. She had a tomato and herb garden at our condo.

(Don) And she likes deer? She won't when her garden disappears in a single night down the hatch of some doe. Hey, there's a reason I built this fence. I've got corn, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins in there. There's deer in this canyon and they're always hungry. The salt block is for them.... the garden is for me. I'm at the top of the food chain and my vegetables are not on their menu.

(Jessie) There any cougars in this canyon?

(Don) Not yet. I heard there was a cougar spotted in Clayton last summer. There's occasionally bobcats here, but usually it is just raccoons, tree squirrels, possums, and an occasional mangey coyote... and skunks... nesting right under my neighbor's deck.  (Don points as if to take him closer)

(Jessie) (Looks straight into camera with pained look on his face) Ah, no thanks. I'd rather go home drunk. Can you tell me something about native grasses....for erosion control, beauty, and fire protection?

(Don) Oh so that's what he wanted me to show you. Stalking the elusive nassella pulchra are you?

(Jessie) I guess, I bought this house in the hills. I guess a fireman would call it a natural born loser.

(Don) It's that bad huh?

(Jessie) Yep, shake roof and the whole bit. Anyway, I want to grow something native under and between the oak trees.

(Don) You're looking for some garden art to set the mood?

(Jessie) I might be. Cliff said you carve wood.

(Don) Yeah, I've been working on a few. I did a cheetah for a guy some time ago.

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

I can carve a whole log into a salmon if you like. I've kinda got a backlog of commissioned pieces right now though. Maybe in a month or two.

(Jessie) That would be better. Give us time to get settled in.

(Don) I planted some native bunch grass seedlings here last winter as plugs. Some species were grown by a local nursery from seed that I collected and some were already here. They're really hard to reestablish in an area that's been disturbed. The weed warriors say it is all in knowing how the roots of the grasses battle each other while competing for nutrients, symbiotically. (Stoops to add another load onto the tarp)

(Jessie) Disturbed? By cattle grazing?

(Don) Yup, this all used to be just overgrazed range land, believe it or not. I've found cow bones bleaching in the sun just off the freeway over by the College. (Stops raking and leans on it to reminisce) Once when I was a kid, when we first moved in here, we were driving downtown and there was a guy on the road moving a flock of sheep. Walking along. That was early 60's I guess and long before they put in the freeway. You can barely see it from here. (panoramic shot of canyon and bay-zoom in and out on distant freeway)

There's still old barb wire fences in a lot of these canyons. Along the old land grant property lines. They used redwood for the fence posts, long lasting heartwood, virgin stuff and they may have rotted off at the base but they're still there....covered with moss but still lyin' around and all that wire rusty as hell. So where are you from?

Sketch by Alison Jeffs

(Jessie) Back East. They taught us about the Founding Fathers and the Civil War in grade school there and took us out to Valley Forge. We didn't have tract homes in my neighborhood. It was kind of a hodgepodge.

(Don) Here, history is about the mission system, dying Indians, the gold rush and waves of land hungry immigrants flooding in. What do you want to know?

(Jessie) Well, where can I get some native grass seed?

(Don) I have an envelope in the green house with some I can spare. And you can try the Native Plant Society. They hold walks throughout the East Bay and lecture as they go. You might meet some nice people there and enjoy a healthy spring stroll with your wife too. I know a lot about native plants but I'm just starting to get into the grasses. The Indians apparently used small portable mortars and pestles to grind up the seeds of grasses and forbs. The Spaniards called this food "Pinole" and named a town after it. I always just assumed that the grasses were natural but no-ooo it turns out all this noxious thistle-ly stuff came over either as a contaminant in alfalfa seed or in the fur of the cows and sheep. Those animals were seed bags with hooves. (Leaning the rake against the fence.)

(Jessie) And now those weeds are everywhere.

(Don) And more exotics coming in all the time. I'm amazed you can still buy a few of the dirty dozen at the local nursery and broom seed over the internet.

(Jessie) You mean you can buy French broom seeds on the web?

(Don) That and a whole lot more in violation of the law.  Nothing has gone extinct recently that I'm aware of but it can get depressing if you let it. Anyway, let me show you what I've done so far. This is basket grass. It gets huge, its easy to grow and should do well here, on the edge of an oak woodland with plenty of sunshine. They say it provides good forage and cover for wildlife.

(Jessie) Like quail?

(Don) And song birds like meadow larks. It's good for controlling erosion and it tolerates this clayey soil. It should get about waist high. This is red fescue. This one is supposed to be excellent for recovering areas overgrown with weeds. You can even mow it like a lawn. There's not much that competes with wild oats but this will. I'll scrape off the wild oat seeds like a handful of darts in the Spring to give the red fescue a decent chance.

For fire protection I've got Mendocino reed grass. This one has roots that won't rot with over watering, as long as its in a well drained soil. It also stays green late into the summer (if you water it) so it really has to be a hot day before this will burn. It's also the longest lived of the native grasses so it'll be here for awhile. Most native grasses will do best if you can cut them down short to mimic the effects of grazing or burning. They'll resprout greener than before. I'm going to plant a lot of this. And this stuff (they pick up the tarp with the pile of mown grass on it) is going straight to the gully. (While walking over) This ditch wasn't near this deep when I was a kid. (They dump it in)

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

And this is just from street run off. See the end of the culvert there?

(Jessie) Yeah

(Don) If all the vegetation on this hill was burned off in a fire there'd be massive amounts of run off every time it rained and there'd be nothing to throw in there to stop it. I suppose I could drop in a few hay bales but I think I'd have more important things to worry about. Like rebuilding the house.

(Jessie) You have fire insurance?

(Don) Yeah, but it wouldn't cover the contents and all of my art and pictures. I have nightmares about that.  If I could burn off just this grass here I'd love to grow a native grass meadow from scratch....and it would be beautiful hmmmm but too risky. And fire doesn't kill all the weed seeds either, the ones deep in the dirt. Ants will actually carry weed seed down into their burrows.  (The pair returns to the work area, Don grabs the rake and leans on it) There's a gully across the canyon there that's thirty feet deep with sheer walls. Its like a box canyon. It swallows up whole oak trees like a black hole eats up star dust. Billions and billions...a lot of cubic yards of dirt came out of that one and its still probably choking the steelhead in San Pablo Creek. I'd take you over there but there's a lot of poison oak to wade through...a lot. I guess the time to stop erosion is before it gets serious.

(Jessie) Like the dust bowl days.

(Don) More like LA. You know...(pointing towards the bay.) When it rains all the water from the storm drains pours down this canyon. It doesn't have a chance to soak into the ground. It's kinda like what happens when you have a bad fire. The soil gets so hot it can form a hydrophobic layer from all the resins in the pine needles.

(Jessie) Like waxed cardboard

(Don) And water can't penetrate it. So it just runs off. That's why LA gets these terrible floods after every major fire. The water can't soak in and there's nothing to hold it. Mud city. Slip sliding away. And then they build a few more houses, it all grows back and they do the whole thing again. Crazy.

(Jessie) There's got to be a better way.

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Don) Absolutely (Turning back up the trail) I've got to get this tool back to the rental shop before five so I better get back to work. It was nice meeting you. Tell Cliff I said "Get a real job!" and I'll see ya at volleyball.

(Don fires up the weed eater and goes back to mowing down the wild oats).

(Jessie) (loudly over the noise) Thanks for talking to me. I feel like an expert already.

Sketch by Alison Jeffs

Don waves good by.

(end of scene five)

Scene Six

(Return to narrator). As we have seen, there are several different varieties of fuel reduction. If you've gotten the go ahead, you can do it yourself or pay to have it done. The wise homeowner who gets this far will avoid leaving "the frying pan for the fire" by re-planting with fire resistant shrubs or native bunch grasses. This will provide year round protection from erosion and fire and be a source of beauty as well, even in the poorest soils. Let's see how a native plant fancier would simultaneously manage a fuel break for beauty, erosion control, habitat and fire protection. For this seemingly impossible task let's follow Helen and a friend as they do a little shopping at Native Here Nursery in the hills above Berkeley.

(End of scene six)

Act Three Scene Seven (The Botanist's Lesson) The camera follows a four door station wagon down Grizzly Peak Blvd and then down a winding road past a golf course. The car pulls into a parking stall in front of the Native Here sign. The camera pans picnic tables, sheds and potted plants. A woman in a dress gets out of the car holding a long shopping list. (sound track- Quail calling)

(Claudia) What a beautiful place! I've lived around here for so long and I didn't even know this place was here-tucked back in the woods like this...and I thought I knew all the good places to shop. (giggles) (wistfully) What a nice place. So where is everybody? (she does a few notes of the Twilight Zone theme) Well I guess I'll just have to take a look around. (She pokes her head into a shed with nothing but ferns in it.) (sound track-dripping water) Hello? Nobody here...Hmmm....a fern bar with no IQ and everybody drinking. Deja vu. Let's try down the road a little. (She steps into a shed and sees the office furniture inside. Hello? Where is everybody? The service here is just terrible. (She sees a "ring bell for service" sign, a brass bell, and grabs the rope and rings it like a cablecar gripman. A woman, dressed in blue jeans, and carrying a cordless phone steps out of a nearby greenhouse.)

(Worker) (approaching and slipping the phone into her pocket.) Good morning...can I help you?

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Claudia) Why yes....I want to buy some plants. I have a list a fireman gave me.

(Worker) May I...

(Claudia) sure (Hands worker the list)

(Worker) (after studying the list) Hmmm...some of these we have and some we don't. What kind of garden are you trying to grow?

(Claudia) Oh its not a garden....its to protect the house (flustered) you know...from fire. My husband wants good plants outside the fence.

(Worker) Good plants? You mean fire resistant plants? That will hold the soil?

(Claudia) Yes that's it.

(Worker) Yes I think we can help you. About how many square feet?

(Claudia) Well the men came in and..... Our lot is about eighty feet wide....and the area they cleared is about, oh I forget, maybe it goes from here to that big tree. (pointing towards large pine)

(Worker) fifty feet?

(Claudia) Yeah about that...but its downhill.

(Worker) ok...eighty feet by fifty feet is about 4,000 square feet. One bush for every ten square feet is about four hundred plants.

(Claudia) Oh no...not that many. I'm only driving a station wagon and besides... money doesn't grow on bushes you know. (giggles)

(Worker) well why don't we get a wheelbarrow and get you what you can afford. I've also got some native wildflower seed that you can plant yourself.

(Claudia) Oh wonderful...my children will love that. The workmen burned all that brush last week. In long rows....it was stacked like wood. Can we plant the seeds...you know... in the ash?

(Worker) Definitely. That ash is good fertilizer and the heat from the fire sterilizes the soil and kills all the weed seeds.

(Claudia) that blackened scar is so ugly....but I guess they had to do it. There was just so much brush.

(Claudia) (resignedly) The brush will be back and so will the workmen.

(Worker) Right. Brush fires have been part of the California landscape for thousands and thousands of years and you know, we are starting to believe the Indians used fire as a horticultural tool..... to encourage acorn bearing oaks and to discourage conifers and brush. .. Anyway most brush will come back quick after a fire from the crown.... the roots are still alive. All the woody plants on this list can be heavily pruned when they get too big and they'll re-sprout vigorously like nothing happened.

(Claudia) so how long before what they chopped down will be back?

(Worker) Not long. Unless you use a herbicide and poison the roots.... or plant these nearby so they compete for the available sunlight and water.

(Claudia) Oh I think I'd rather plant something. We have children you know. So what do you have that's on the list?

(Worker) We've got the bearberry... that's over here. (lifting one into the wheelbarrow.) It needs some summer water. These are five bucks each....

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Claudia) I'll take four.

(Enter Helen) Hi.... do you mind if I listen in? It sounds like we're in the same boat.

(Worker) Certainly. My name is Karen and I'll be your tour guide today.

(Claudia) Hi I'm Claudia

(Helen) Call me Helen

(Worker) Ok, we've got hummingbird sage. Here smell this (tearing off a sprig and crumpling it in her hand)

(Claudia) oh that's wonderful.

(Helen)   Such a delicate aroma.

(Worker) And when its in bloom the fragrance is just heavenly. If you don't mind me asking Claudia, where do you live?

(Claudia) Why do you ask?

(Worker) Well, if you live near the Huckleberry Preserve then I don't want to sell you a garden variety, dwarf manzanita that will hybridize with a population of A. Pallida, a rare and endangered species occurring there. That would defeat the whole purpose, or at least the conservation aspect, of gardening with California natives. These subspecies took millennia to evolve these unique adaptations to local climate and soil types and it would be a shame to lose that biodiversity in a botanical heartbeat.

(Claudia) I thought biodiversity was a buzz word for preventing extinction.

(Worker) There is a lot more to it than that. (pauses) Do you live in the fog belt?

(Claudia) Well, we are up in the hills but nowhere near the Huckleberry Preserve. At least 10 miles further south, I'd say. We get fog mornings and evenings, with the usual afternoon wind.

(Worker) Near the college?

(Claudia) Kind of

(Worker) I took classes in ornamental horticulture there. It's a pretty good program. So does this hillside catch the morning sun or the afternoon?

(Claudia) Oh the morning.

(Worker) that puts you on a south facing slope-Fires always burn hotter on the south face of a ridge.

(Claudia) yeah and we're at the top of the gulch.

(Worker) that's a double whammy.

(Claudia) I know. My husband insisted we do everything we could to be fire safe. Every month he's up on a ladder cleaning the pine needles out of the rain gutters. He's been trying to talk the neighbors into going in on one of those foam spray trailer mounted thingys. Cover your house and everything with foam.

(Worker) At least he takes it seriously.

(Helen) I'm not sure which direction our house faces because we just bought it. I know my husband cleaned out the fireplace after one of those romantic evenings in front of the fire. The embers were still hot...it caught the paper bag on fire and melted our plastic garbage can.

(Claudia) really?


Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(Claudia) but you kept him?

(Helen) I guess I have to...somebody has to change the batteries in the smoke detector.

(Worker) well...uhmm here's a plant that does a good job of holding the soil. It will provide cover and food for quail. Did you see our resident flock as you drove in?

(Claudia) No but I heard them. It's such a beautiful sound.

(Worker) That's the male-calling his flock together.

(Claudia) I suppose the Indians had a tale woven around that one...

(Worker) I suppose they did. Anyway this is a coral bell. It is very drought tolerant, its fine under oakss and grows well with Pacific Coast iris. One gallon containers are $6 each.

(Claudia) I'll take five. Do you take checks?

(Worker) of course.....Here are coast buck brush, a plant that is hard to find in nurseries...and California fuschia. The buck brush is a low mounding shrub that won't block your views.

(Claudia) that's good.

(Worker) The fuschia sports brilliant scarlet flowers in late summer.

(Claudia) ok... lets round out the wheel barrow load with those and come back for more.

(Worker) Good idea
(They turn back on a path towards the office)

(Helen) So ahh...you're a long ways from the nearest fire station. What precautions have you taken against fire?

(Worker) Well some of the people here are all for a hot tub or swimming pool...just for a ready reservoir of water you understand.

(Claudia) of course (in mock seriousness)

(Worker) We have a fire evacuation plan if worse comes to worse. We've got fire extinguishers in case a car erupts into flame. We've got two back pumps to catch spot fires if it starts snowing embers and some buckets..plus we got a lot of garden hose, some lawn sprinklers and several spigots.

(Claudia) You know, just getting fire insurance these days is difficult. They won't write a new policy until someone else drops out.

(Helen) Tell me about it. We can't get fire insurance at all.

(enter Tim)

(Worker) Here's another wheel barrow. Thank you Tim. (exit Tim) We'll just park this one here and have Charli total 'em up all at once.

(Claudia) Ok

(Sound effect) A cell phone rings. The worker and Helen both reach for their phones. The call is for Helen, however, and the worker puts hers away. Worker continues talking to Claudia in the background.

(Helen) Hi, Jessie. (pauses-camera close up) That's great honey. (Pauses) I'm up at Native Here Nursery, I'll have some plants for you to put by the deck at new place....

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

(camera turns back to Claudia and worker)

(Worker) So we don't worry too much about what's outside the fence. Plants we can re-grow. Sheds can be rebuilt. There are a few plants that I'd grab if we had to evacuate but I wouldn't take any chances. Like I said, a fire would just prove how fire adapted these natives are. It'd set us back but we'd recover. I just hope that I'm not the one who has to decide whether to rebuild, replant or relocate. We couldn't do business in a devastated landscape. Families out for a Sunday drive are a  good chunk of our business. We all fear the worst but we hope for the best. It's just one of those things you have to plan for.

(Claudia) You can say that again....Thanks for all your help (exit Claudia with Tim pushing wheelbarrow) (Worker) Now Helen, what can I do for you? (Helen) About the fuschia.... (fade out)

(end of scene seven)

Epilogue -Scene Eight (Wrapping up the loose ends)

Return to narrator- Helen and Jessie patched up their differences and lived happily ever after in a fire safe home. With a little help from his friends Jessie persuaded Helen that planning for wild fire is part of the cost of living in a Mediterranean climate. To her credit, Helen convinced Jessie that spring house cleaning should include painting the exterior of the house, cleaning out the rain gutters and cutting the brush back. How aggressively you go about it depends on your health, wealth, and emotional attachment to material possessions. To be truly fire safe requires the participation and cooperation of individuals, neighborhoods and local government. As Jessie and Helen have learned, with foresight and careful planning, our homes can be made safer and portions of our cherished native plant and animal communities restored to their former glory. All aboard!

(End of scene eight)

Copyright © 1994 by Steven P. Kennedy

Scene Nine

Fire Marshal's narration begins- "We hope that you high tech professionals have enjoyed this low tech lesson in fire safety and that the story of Jessie and Helen will become part of your personal matrix. Your local fire marshal has additional information that can help you make your home, fire and earthquake safe, and may be willing to make a house call to inspect your yard work. Support your local fire department and give them a call. Thanks for watching. Good luck, best wishes and be fire safe."


credits and acknowledgments roll as steam train pulls out of the station
with the cast and crew waving and smiling from an open car.

End of scene nine &

End of script

Steven P. Kennedy-Author

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