When Your Yard Can Kill You

My mom wanted to be prepared for wildfire season. But I knew she was concerned about the cost.

House burning in California
A house burning in Plumas County, California, on July 24, 2021 (JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty)

“I’m worried I’m going to fail,” my mom told me over the phone the night before her fire inspection. It was April, and she had been preparing for months, cutting branches, pruning hedges, and removing dead weeds in her backyard. She had learned how to use an array of garden tools—three saws, including a chain saw, and four different kinds of clippers—and even considered buying a wood chipper before deciding that machine was too dangerous for an amateur like herself.

In California, state and local laws have long required that people who live in areas at high risk of wildfires create buffers of “defensible space”—land cleared of vegetation and other flammable material—around their homes. Local fire departments and Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, are tasked with going door-to-door to inspect the properties of the estimated 2.7 million Californians who live in these zones. And as the state’s fires have gotten worse, local communities have begun enforcing the law more aggressively. Only in the past year or so has Hillsborough, the small Bay Area town where my mom lives, started to inspect every high-risk property for compliance. My mom wanted to be ready. I told her not to worry about passing the inspection, and that she could hire tree trimmers to work on the branches that were out of reach, but I knew she was concerned about the cost.

Even though my mom had tried her best to cut back the lush backyard, her weekend landscaping was not nearly enough to create the defensible space required. During the inspection, my mom learned that much of her yard would have to go. The oak branches were hanging too low over the roof; the thicket of acacia trees was too dense; the smaller redwood limbs needed to be at least six feet off the ground. The biggest problem was her brambly oak hedge, which lined the driveway and stood at least seven feet tall. It provided privacy, but the inspector explained that if it caught fire, my mom would have no pathway to escape.

That was all it took to persuade my mom to make substantial changes. She still remembers the morning last September when she thought she’d woken up on Mars. The sky was a hazy, burnt tangerine; the sun was nowhere to be seen. Thinking about the orange, smoke-filled sky made pushing away vanity easier. Who cares about having an ugly hedge if it means saving your life?

After the inspector left, my mom called several tree-trimming businesses to figure out how much the clearing would cost. The lowest estimate was $4,500; the highest was upwards of $10,000. She had 30 days to make the modifications before the inspector returned, so she hired a company that spent three days cutting down trees and feeding the branches into a wood chipper. My mom texted me live updates throughout the process, expressing horror at how unruly the yard looked. By the end of the third day, whole sections of the yard were cleared; the hedge was three feet shorter and knobby-looking, and the fence surrounding the property was actually visible. My mom was lucky that, with help from family, she was able to afford the tree trimmers. She passed the second inspection.

Personal, direct effects of climate change—having to conserve water during drought season, install air-conditioning to combat rising temperatures, and clear vegetation from yards and gardens to protect against wildfires—are the new normal in California. But individuals and policy makers are still figuring out how to share those burdens equitably. Although studies indicate that homes surrounded by defensible space are less likely to be damaged by fires, making sure that homeowners follow the law is not always easy. Local fire departments and Cal Fire units have fallen behind on completing annual inspections because of staffing shortages. And homeowners like my mom have to cover the high costs of fireproofing their backyard.

Those costs are the most significant challenge to achieving compliance with California’s fire-protection laws, Jennee Kuang, an environment program fellow at the Hewlett Foundation, found in a 2019 study of 49 defensible-space programs in California. “It’s an expensive thing to incorporate into your budget as a new annual line item,” she told me. The difficulties of complying with fire ordinances can vary based on a person’s wealth and age too. People with disabilities and elderly homeowners on limited incomes, for example, face greater obstacles to making modifications to their properties, and to paying for them. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a 94-year-old in San Diego who could neither clear the yard on his own nor foot the $14,000 bill for removing trees on his property. His neighbors eventually helped him apply for aid, but financial assistance isn’t always widely available.

Although some counties, such as Humboldt, on the far north coast, reimburse homeowners on a per-acre basis, many residents rely on grassroots organizations that may have access to the state and federal grants that individuals can’t apply for. Some local fire-safety groups have dedicated funds to help those in need, or organize days on which people can use a community wood chipper for free. Within areas that Cal Fire inspects, the average rate of compliance in 2021 has been 85 percent, according to John Morgan, the defensible-space division chief at the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Kuang found that districts with strict enforcement penalties—such as fees or property liens—had the highest compliance rates.

But expecting residents to absorb the costs, time, and labor of protecting their homes can make people resistant to creating fire-resilient communities, says Annie Schmidt, a program specialist at the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, a fire-safety education organization. Vegetation modifications and home-hardening improvements, such as replacing roofs with fireproof material, are crucial to protecting neighborhoods but “may not be perceived as beneficial enough to warrant investment,” she told me over email.

With 95 percent of California experiencing severe drought and the typical fire season growing hotter and longer each year because of climate change, the question may no longer be if fire will reach a community, but when. Fires can’t be eradicated—at least not completely—and the state’s longtime strategy of suppressing fire has created ever more dangerous conditions. Wildfires are inevitable. But the destruction of Californians’ homes and lives doesn’t have to be. What’s needed, then, is not only assistance for residents in fireproofing their homes but also recognition among residents of the real and imminent dangers that wildfires pose.

Californians may be starting to better understand that threat. Last year’s fires were a “wake-up call” for many people in Hillsborough, Christine Reed, the fire marshal at the Central County Fire Department, which oversees Hillsborough, told me. Most homeowners have been on board with scheduling inspections and making the necessary modifications, and the department aims to finish inspections by the end of the year. “When you’re driving on the highway and you’re seeing a big column of smoke in the distance, it hits home. It’s a reminder that it can happen here,” Reed said. “I see so many more people working on their lots when I traverse areas of the state,” Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in fire management, told me.

I also felt a shift when I arrived home in June. I could hear chain saws and wood chippers throughout the day. When I drove into Palo Alto, I saw a herd of goats on the side of the road, diligently chewing through a field of dead grass. On July 4, I heard my neighbors lighting fireworks and panicked over whether calling the police would make me a responsible citizen or a Karen. (To my relief, they hosed down the fireworks before I had to make a decision.) On a walk around the neighborhood, my mom pointed out patches of overgrown grass, piles of dry brush, and mounds of mulch. In just a few months, her mind had been primed to look at the world in terms of what could burn. At first, I found her new outlook alarming. But I realized this was just a consequence of learning to live with the threat of fire.

I asked my mom whether she had ever considered leaving California and living somewhere else. Wouldn’t she like to go to sleep without worrying about needing to escape in the middle of the night? Wouldn’t she like to avoid waking up to another hazy, orange sky? Her answer was an immediate no. “I was born and raised here,” she said. “And our family is here.” Besides, where else would she go? Natural disasters and extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are affecting people everywhere, not just in California. And the personal costs of climate change are becoming more apparent: higher insurance premiums, higher electricity bills for air-conditioning, higher prices for food and gas. You may not have to worry about clearing vegetation from your yard. But climate change’s bills will come due for you too.