Middle School Version
Marin County Middle School Version
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Elementary School Version

The Script

Santa Cruz County Version

Production Notes:

The Cannonball Express has come a long way (no pun intended) since the original script was written in 1993. This web site was built with the script as its foundation.

Actors say that learning their lines and rehearsing is the real work. Being on stage or in front of the camera is the easy part. Breathing life into the characters described in the script below will be the primary task of the actors and actresses playing these roles. Their professionalism will make all the difference between an adequate video that covers the subject and an effective video that is a pleasure to watch.

Storyboard Sketches by:

Alex Mizuno


Alison Jeffs

Copyright © 2003 by Steven P. Kennedy

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

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? Not surprisingly, many computer professionals have chosen to build big custom homes and live here in the forests, valleys and hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 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.

Nature used to have a way to keep brush fires on schedule, with cool burning, ground hugging fires that seldom caused any alarm to man or beast.

The construction of homes in fire prone areas however, has altered the cycle of nature and put nature's trains way behind schedule. So when nature does roll the train, it is the cannonball express. If we choose to heed the lessons of the Oakland Berkeley hills fire of 1991 we can slow down the train and make it stop when and where we want it to. That's the driving force behind a new concept in urban planning called vegetation management. ie Create a network of low fuel zones where a fire can be stopped before it blows through a suburban neighborhood.

Soon after the devastation of the Oakland Berkeley hills fire of 1991 it became apparent to fire officials that towns and communities nestled around Marin County's Mount Tamalpais were, seasonally at least, in mortal danger.

Where the Indians used to burn the mountain every three to five years there now was a fifty year accumulation of brush. More than enough for a cannonball run. Marin County Water Department officials were concerned that such a major fire would cause a major flood of silt and ash into the reservoirs, reducing their carrying capacity and complicating the water treatment process. Open Space District resource managers were also concerned over the impact a major fire would have on the battered native plant and animal communities.

Given widespread public opposition to control burning it was evident that a new approach was needed. So an environmental analysis and planning firm was hired to lay the foundation for a vegetation management plan or VMP. This ground breaking document, called a base line study, was to determine the nature of the vegetation that once was, its current state, and what was likely to exist in the future given a continuation of current land management practices. The VMP was opened for public review at several community meetings and described how a total of 1100 acres in Marin would be treated, (out of a total study area of 20,000) with control burning to be done on only 300 acres in strategic locations.

While the situation in Santa Cruz County is similar in regards to the abundance of flammable vegetation wrapped around several different communities, the residents here generally rely on well water. Santa Cruz County creeks generally flow into Monterrey Bay rather than into reservoirs. This effectively removes the water department as a major player and puts the fuel reduction dilemma into the hands of the people; individual homeowners whose property backs up to a brushy hillside or canyon.

There are, in Santa Cruz County, inmate work crews run by the Sheriffs Department doing brush removal-fuel reduction projects but they are generally restricted by their budget to working on high priority projects on, or adjacent to, public property such as open space areas, city parks and so forth. Private homeowners whose fire threat arises from land outside the scope of these work crews, must hire independent contractors or do the work themselves. (If you are a homeowner and find inspiration in this film please remember that this video is not an invitation to trespass in the name of environmental heroism. Brush may seem to be more of a liability than an asset but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

Vegetation management wraps up environmental, public safety, viewscape and property value issues in one neat package which, in the larger scheme of things, may make an integrated approach necessary. With this in mind let's meet one of those independent contractors who'll share with us some of the secrets of good vegetation management. But first, let's go back to our friends at the restaurant and see how they're doing. (end of narration)

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Set Description (Crisis Scenario-Attention Getting Scene) A peaceful forest with shafts of morning sunlight dappling the forest floor. Sound track-Silverware tapping against dishes, the murmur of conversation and birds chirping in the background.

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

The camera pans to an elegantly dressed couple seated at a dining table placed between the rail station cafe and the forest. The table conversation is about forest fires and how "it just can't happen here". And then a steam locomotive thunders by. Their composure is ruined (and we have the full attention of our audience.)

Scene One (Introducing the protagonist)

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

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

(Waiter-beaming) That was Roaring Camp Railroad’s 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 disco man, for reasons I can't figure out, you've doubled my commute time going over the hill 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 damn woods. Well, yuppie scum, let me tell you something, I'll be damned if I want 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 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? Don't forget there's Lloyd's of London. Felton is a great place to raise our family. It is beautiful there and its quiet.....and I know I'm not exactly a boy scout 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....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, ya cheapskate.


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.) California you are ...

Listen to a happy tune while you read.

A Parody of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” by Paul Henning

Come 'n' listen to my story 'bout a man named Jess,
A poor technician, always kept his wife in stress.
Out one day he was pullin' at some wire...
When over the hill came a boilin’ fire.
Fire storm that is...black smoke...Charing Cross Road...

Well, the first thing you know old Jess is droppin' bricks.
Should'a spent more time a-hanging out with hicks.
And that's why he leaned how to clear some brush....
Been fightin’ with his wife - he's in a big rush.
Cliff that is...Don Coyne...experts in the field.

(Comin' soon...the MP3 version.)

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 2000 is the greatest. Plug and Play is just super. Thanks for helping me out there.

(Jessie) Hey, no problem. (modestly)

(Cliff) (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. Home Depot 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 Scotts Valley 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. 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.)

(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.

(Jessie) And no major erosion from the tractor either. 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) That you're a lumberjack.

(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?

(Jessie) Right!

(Cliff) We're both members of the Sierra Club right?

(Jessie) Sure

(Cliff) And so we got to take the environment into consideration when I'm deciding what goes and what stays.

(Jessie) Yep!

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 shouldn’t 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)

(Jessie) Whoa!

(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 it’s 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 it’s 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 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. 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 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 Oakland Berkeley Hills 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 Berkeley the afternoon of the fire. People were madly taking out bushes and trees from around their houses.

(Jessie-sadly) Too little, too late.

(Cliff) And acacia is another beautiful tree but it’s 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.

(Jessie) Nesting?

(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 engine? 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 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.

(Jessie) Bye

Cliff waves

(end of scene two)

Ozzie's Tree & Yard Service (650) 368-8065
San Carlos Area: Tom Brennan 650-599-9793 or 650-654-1377
Oakland-Berkeley Hills: Fire Safety Clearing Teo Carlone (510) 527-7536
Santa Cruz Mountains: Blair Proctor: 650-747-0256
(Goats by the hundreds): Brea and Robert McGrew 1-916-757-6265
San Jose Area and Southern Alameda County: Cliff Murray 408-927-6979

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

Scene Three

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 Cliff! Some fool 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 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. 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.

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 and some were already here. They're really hard to reestablish in an area that's been disturbed. The grower says 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 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 Native Plant Society. They hold walks at Wilder Ranch and lecture as they go. You might meet some people there and enjoy a nice 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.

(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 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)

Sketch by Alex Mizuno

This ditch wasn't near this deep when I was a kid. (They dump it in) 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. 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 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. (Musing) Billions and billions...a lot of cubic yards of dirt came out of that one 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).

(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 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 enhancement and fire protection. For this seemingly impossible task let's follow Helen and a friend as they do a little shopping at Native Revival Nursery.

Scene Four (The Botanist's Lesson)

The camera follows a four door station wagon down Soquel Drive and then down a winding dirt road past work sheds and a barn. The car pulls into a parking stall in front of the retail office. The camera pans greenhouses, sheds and rows of potted native plants. A woman in a long 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 cute office. 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 greenhouse 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 cluttered building and the office 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 fir with Spanish moss hanging from the lower branches)

(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 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 resprout vigorously like nothing happened.

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

(Worker) Not long. Unless you use an 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 bladderpod... 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 Sand Hill 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 in the fog belt.

(Claudia) Oh no, we live up in the hills above it. 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 hill.

(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?

(Helen) the last of the red hot lovers!

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 chapparal currant. One gallon containers are $6 each.

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

(Worker) of course.....Here are wild strawberry...and stone crops. The strawberry is a herbaceous perennial. It needs a little watering now and then.

(Claudia) that's no problem.

(Worker) The stonecrops are succulents...they offer the best fire retardance and drought resistance.

(Claudia) ok... lets round out the wheelbarrow 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 porta pumps to drop in the ponds if the electricity goes off and we can't pump water from the well. You've seen all the fire hose we have coiled up. That office is a fire trap but we've got ladders against the walls in the back in case the roof catches.

(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.

(Worker) I'm not privy to all the owner's dealings but there was no problem at all when we told her we wanted to cut plywood shutters for the windows. I guess fires were more common when she was young and everybody cooked with wood. She doesn't burn wood in her fireplace very often but there's a spark arrestor over it just in case. Houses that old can have a chimney fire just from all the creosote build up in the chimney.

(Claudia) chim chim chereee

(Worker) exactly Pay him now or pay him later.

(Helen) I saw a ski cabin once, from the highway, with a ten foot tall blowtorch coming out of the chimney. That was scary.

(Claudia) I bet.

(enter Tim )

(Worker) Here's another wheelbarrow. Thank you Tim. (exit Tim) We'll just park this one here and have Erin 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 down at Native Revival Nursery, I'll have some plants for you to put by the fence 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. Green houses 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. That is why we put in the gift shop. 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 stonecrop.... (fade out)

(end of scene four)

Epilogue (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 fire is part of the cost of living in a Mediterranean climate. To her credit, Helen convince Jessie that spring house cleaning should include painting the exterior of the house, mowing the lawn, 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!

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 script Copyright © 2003 by Steven P. Kennedy


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