State of Colorado Version
Copyright © 1994 by Steven P. Kennedy Revised 2003
Storyboard Sketches by:
Special Thanks to Ruth Wilson who created a web site containing a list of plants for fire safe landscaping which was compiled by F.C. Dennis, a Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Coordinator with the Colorado State Forest Service.
Synopsis A docudrama, The Cannonball Express is the story of Jessie and Helen, their dream house in the Front Range and how they learned to protect it from fire.
Beginning of Script
| The Cannonbal acoustic guitar theme
was composed by Gerald McMullin...
Prologue-Scene Four (Introducing the protagonist)
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 a secluded beach in California...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 Aspen.... 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 in the country 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 I said I wanted to lose everything we've got to some...forest fire...and start over again with nothing. And now you tell me you can't even get reasonably priced 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, the guy at Lloyds of London said he'd get right back to me. West Creek 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 dinner time 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 in vain) Helen....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? (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.) I
must have been (singing) Rocky Mountain Hi-igh Colorado...
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
Scene Two (The Brush Cutter's Lesson)
The camera pans a brushy hillside with a view of suburbia.
(Cliff) Hi Jessie. Pull up a chair. (points to ice chest) Thanks for stopping by. That Windows Vista is the greatest. Plug and Play is just super. Thanks for helping me out there.
(Jessie) Hey, no problem. (modestly)
(Mops brow with handkerchief) Man, its warm today. (Takes sip of water from canteen,
sits down at crude table and starts working on a chain saw with a rat tail file.)
So, how's the fixer upper?
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(Jessie) Oh, pretty good. It needs work.
(Cliff) 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 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.
(Cliff) Well try a new battery in the smoke detector and we'll make a six pack gardener out of you yet. Beer?
(Jessie) 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.
(Cliff) Well, you came to the right place buddy old pal. Look around you. This place was as bad as yours. If you and your wife work together and do it smart, it'd take, maybe a weekend at most. Three days tops. Then, get a ladder, clean out the rain gutters to keep the sparks away from the rafters and you're through. And it wouldn't hurt to have some plywood covers cut for the windows just in case. Your lumberyard clerk will cut them to size for you. (Puts file down to gesture) Look at this job...
(Jessie) It makes me tired just looking at it.
(Cliff) 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 Watsonville and then to Corralitos 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, 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.
(Cliff) It didn't come easy. Some of these homeowners have handed
me projects large enough to experiment with different methods of moving the brush
I'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. Some land I've seen in Bonny
Doon has had fuel loads of up to thirty tons per acre. Some of that is heavy timber
that stays put but you get the idea. On this project, I've rigged up a cable and
pulley system to carry 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.)
(Cliff) 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.
(Cliff) 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.
(Cliff) Right! Too soon old and too late smart. That's why, when I work around Bonny Doon, I take the extra time to fill out a permit with the County, even if I'm clearing invasive, non-native species like pampas grass and broom. The name of the game is minimizing disturbance, so I avoid rare wildflowers when dragging branches and occasionally I'll call in a biological consultant for help with identification. Those County fines and red tags are just bad for business. I even have to time my work to avoid harming endangered insects like the Mount Hermon June beetle and the Zayante Band-Winged Grasshopper, as they emerge from the ground and seek shelter.
(Jessie) Wow! Even the bugs....
(Cliff) You know it.
(Jessie) Cliff, I got to hand it to you....
(Cliff) It's just experience, lots of experience. (Pauses to reflect) Ya know, my business card says I'm a tree cutter but that gives people the wrong impression.
(Jessie) (SLYLY) That you're a lumberjack with an axe of evil?
(Cliff) When 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?
(Cliff) We're both members of the Sierra Club right?
(Cliff) And so we got to take the environment into consideration when I'm deciding what goes and what stays.
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!
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
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!
soon...the MP3 version.
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(Cliff) (Pointing) Take this dead oak for example. It was tall and strong when the Spaniards arrived. Now the Sudden Oak Death syndrome has killed it and it shouldnt even be hauled away for firewood. 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 harvest the acorns. Anyway, its kind of scenic and it will make for great habitat for garter snakes, owls and woodpeckers for the next hundred years. (Heavy branch snaps off with a loud crack! and falls nearby with a thud)
(Cliff) (Angrily to the tree) If it does that again its gonna be a little less scenic!
(Jessie-laughs) Mother nature's revenge.
(Cliff) And there's another. ....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.
(Cliff) 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
(Cliff) Yep. When I started on this project it was really brushy here. I've already made several trips to the dump and now 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 native wildflowers in the sunny areas. (Makes throwing motion as if scattering seeds)
(Jessie) That'll look nice
(Cliff) Most of what I've taken out has been scotch broom, poison oak, coyote brush, sticky monkey flower, wild oats and even some English ivy. The scotch broom, the wild oats, and the ivy are the exotics and shoot.... this county loses more plant and wildlife habitat every year to exotic invasives than to developers putting in homes and roads. We just don't have any insects or animals that go to town on broom. It 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 like popcorn popping with a forty year shelf life. 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.
(Cliff) I'm also trying to ease up on the clearing just short of the property line so it doesn't have that clear cut 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. A phased approach is best for wildlife. 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 and I'll talk to the neighbors. Scotch broom tends to come back quickly from seeds dropped the previous year so I'll make a follow up visit in six months to yank out the volunteers. Five years from now it will be due for a light trim. The only trees I'm eager to take out are the ones that just don't belong.
(Jessie) Like eucalyptus?
(Cliff) Eucalyptus is high on my list. It smells good but its 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 Trabing Road Fire.
(Jessie) I saw that on the news (quick shot of burning eucalyptus forest spliced in).
(Cliff) They had a run on saws and loppers at hardware stores all over Santa Cruz County the afternoon of the fire. People were madly taking out bushes and trees from around their houses.
(Jessie-sadly) Too little, too late.
(Cliff) Several of our rare, special status manzanita species such as Silverleaf and Heartleaf Manzanitacannot re-sprout from the base.... so I do less pruning. It takes a long time for their seedlings to provide cover.
(JESSIE) TOO BAD.
(CLIFF) 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. Just be careful with the tools and watch out for poison oak.
(Jessie) Been there-done that. (To himself....hey she forgot about that one.)
(Cliff) 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. Ol' Cliff 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.
(Cliff) I got your card
(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?
(Cliff) Yeah, when I get too old and famous to do this I might just organize an old fashioned "burn razing". Right now, there's no shortage of work for a Paul Bunyan like me.... But I would like to get old Manuel out here with Mario's kid and Mr. Peterson and have a work party some time with watermelon, lemonade and a BBQ.
(Jessie) America...(with thick accent) what a country! (laughs)
(Cliff) Skankey? (pointing to house nearby) (pessimistically) He won't show. (with comtempt) He'll hem and haw and then decide to do nothin. I don't think he'll ever get over that false alarm he called in. Sirens, flashing lights, a full haz mat team, the whole bit. Neighbors coming out of the woodwork. He thought he had an electrical fire in his swimming pool's pump house. He said it smelled like burning rubber, or chemicals.
(Jessie) So what was it?
(Cliff) It was a skunk. A stupid skunk.
(Cliff) Yeah, and he'll hibernate through the next great fire unless the earthquake knocks him out of bed first. (Cliff chuckles, picks up gloves...carefully puts them on and ...wearily picks up chainsaw.) And thanks for stopping by.
(Jessie) Thanks for the advice.
(Cliff) Oh and uh....do you hear that weed wacker? Excuse me....I gotta make a quick phone call (picks up portable phone and turns his back to the camera-camera pans trees and focuses on birds rustling in the underbrush) Cliff 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?
(Cliff) That's him. The guy that sweats so much he has to wring
out his shirt. 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 volkswagen van outside and go through the green gate....
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(Jessie) No dueling banjos?
(Cliff) 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.
(end of scene four)
1. Smith's Tree & Yard Service 303-
2. Davey Tree
3. Jim's Weed Whacking & Hauling
4. Goats 'R' Us (Goats by the hundreds):
5. Greenleaf Landscaping
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
Scene Three - (The Naturalist's Scene)
The camera pans a breathtaking view of the canyon
and Monterey 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 shiny brown mineral block
sits nearby, 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 volkswagen van on the block.
(Don) That Cliff! Some fool helps him load Windows Vista 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 in my satchel, 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) Top of the food chain? Isn't there a resident cougar in this canyon?
(Don) there are lots of deer around, so this area hasn't been claimed as territory yet. I heard there was a cougar spotted in Swanton 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. (points as if to take him closer)
(Jessie) Ah, no thanks. I'd rather go home drunk than stinking to high heaven. 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. 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.
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(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 nursery called Central Coast Wilds from seed that I collected locally, within two or three miles and some were already here. Valerie Haley, a botanist with The Vegetation Management Network, talked me out of using Santa Cruz Erosion Control Mix. She said the clovers in it are aggressive invaders and not native. The bottlom line is that these native grasses are really hard to reestablish in an area that's been disturbed. The botanists 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?
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 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 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 California Native Plant Society. They hold walks at Wilder Ranch and lecture as they go. You might meet some nice people there and enjoy a beautiful spring walk 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 noooo, it turns out all this thistle-ly stuff came over with the cows and sheep. (Leaning the rake against the fence.)
(Jessie) And now they're everywhere.
(Don) And more exotics coming in all the time. I'm amazed you can still buy the dirty dozen at the local nursery.
(Jessie) You mean you can still buy French broom there?
(Don) That and English ivy. Nothing has gone extinct but it can get depressing if you let it. Anyway, let me show you what I've done so far. This is blue wild rye. It 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.
(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 California Brome. This one is supposed to be excellent for recovering areas overgrown with weeds. There's not much that competes with wild oats but this will. For fire protection I've got California Oatgrass, not wild oats mind you...oatgrass. This one stays green late into the summer without watering so it really has to be a hot day before this will burn. If I water it once in a while it never will. Its also the longest lived of the native grasses so it'll be here for awhile. 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? I hand laid that rock apron last year. I was gonna use rounded river rock but the guy at NRCS, Rich Casale, recommended angular quarry rock, so I had a load delivered. He said it would slow down the water better than slippery boulders or broken concrete. I was afraid the erosion would undermine my road to the point that the fire engine couldn't make it to my house in an emergency. I WAS GONNA USE ROUNDED RIVER ROCK BUT THE GUY AT NRCS, RICH CASALE, RECOMMENDED ANGULAR QUARRY ROCK, SO I HAD A LOAD DELIVERED. HE SAID IT WOULD SLOW DOWN THE WATER BETTER THAN SLIPPERY BOULDERS OR BROKEN CONCRETE. I WAS AFRAID THE EROSION WOULD UNDERMINE MY ROAD TO THE POINT THAT THE FIRE ENGINE COULDN'T MAKE IT TO MY HOUSE IN AN EMERGENCY.
(Jessie) Yeah, And this is just from street run off. See the end of the culvert there?
(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 ON TOP OF THE APRON 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 my art and pictures. If I could burn off just this grass here I'd love to grow a native grass meadow from seed....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. (They return to work area, Don grabs the rake and leans on it) There's a gully across the canyon BELOW A CULVERT 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. THE HOMEOWNER ASSOCIATION NEVER APPOINTED A ROAD MANAGER AND KEPT POURING MONEY AND TRUCK LOADS OF GRAVEL INTO THE SAME SEEP. NOW THEY NEED TO BUILD A CRIB WALL.
(JESSIE) ONE OF THOSE CONCRETE LINCOLN LOG THINGS?
(DON) YEAH AND EXPENSIVE TOO. (Musing) Billions and billions...a lot of cubic yards of dirt came out of that DITCH and its still probably choking the steelhead in Branciforte 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).
(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 three)
(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 Harlequinn Gardens.
(End of scene six)
Act Three Scene Seven (The Botanist's Lesson) The camera follows a four door station wagon down the highway and then down a winding road. The car pulls into a parking stall in front of the nursery 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?
(Claudia) Why yes....I want to buy some plants. I have a
list a fireman gave me.
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(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 Colorado 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 pine nut production and to discourage 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?
We've got the bearberry... that's over here. (lifting one into the wheelbarrow.)
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 Prairie 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) I just wondered if you were above timber line.
(Claudia) Oh no, we live up in the hills but not that high. We get 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 hill.
(Worker) that's a double whammy..because of the wind.
(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.
(Helen) the last of the red hot lovers!
Sketch by Alex Mizuno
(Claudia) but you kept him?
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 golden currant. One gallon containers are $6 each.
(Claudia) I'll take five. Do you take checks?
(Worker) of course.....Here are creeping grape holly...and prairie sage. The holly is a low mounding shrub that won't block your views.
(Claudia) that's good.
(Worker) The sage sports brilliant flowers in the spring.
(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 power tool 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're trying to get Lloyd's of London to cover us.
(enter Charley )
(Worker) Here's another wheel barrow. Thank you Charley. (exit Charley) We'll just park this one here and have Vivian total 'em up all at once.
(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.
Hi, Jessie. (pauses-camera close up) That's great honey. (Pauses) I'm at Harlequinn
Nursery, I'll have some plants for you to put below the deck at the 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 regrow. 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 Charley pushing wheelbarrow) (Worker) Now Helen, what can I do for you? (Helen) About the sage.... (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 forest in a high and arid 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 this task depends on your health, wealth, and emotional attachment to your 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
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."
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-Project Director
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