Real Estate

Positively Green

Earth, wind and fire: It takes a village

by Iris Harrell

On a daily basis, I am still awestruck with the beauty and bounty of the world we live in with its deliciously moderate weather year-round, and gorgeous hills beautifully covered with lovely native landscaping and trees for as far as the eye can see. However, with this beauty and bounty often comes a sense of entitlement and a blasé attitude about the very thing we need to safeguard most and protect into perpetuity.

Iris Harrell
So, my first commitment is to not forget all of the incredible benefits this piece of earth affords me. My second promise is to ask myself, "What am I doing to insure the longevity of this great surrounding of natural beauty and sacred space?"

My local neighborhood is currently focusing on fire safety, since we live in a Wildlife Urban Interface (WUI) area. I am serving on an ad hoc committee to intelligently assemble a suggested plan of action so we can be safe-guarded from an unexpected wildfire.

Besides researching what new practices, materials and policies we should consider, we need to involve the neighborhood landscape, design committee and the town, and work in a concerted effort to achieve a more fire-safe community. However, to make only one neighborhood safe does not protect us sufficiently. All contiguous neighborhoods need to become fully conscious to represent all of our stakes.

With the severe drought, the first thoughts about July 4th were not "where are we going to watch the fireworks celebration?" but instead our community was thinking "how are we going to keep our homes from inadvertently going up in flames?" The usual joy of this otherwise noteworthy holiday is mitigated with the fear of what one careless unauthorized firecracker might do.

Maintaining our beauty and bounty requires a collective effort, and here's the "rub." It is hard to get timely agreement of strategy and then accurate and efficient implementation, even among a few people, much less an entire neighborhood association or town. This sobering thought points to the importance of local government making laws for necessary compliance and mutual safety.

One would think we'd understand that "time is of the essence," as we don't know when a life-threatening fire or earthquake may erupt. And we don't know when or if this long drought (which severely raises the chance of a wildfire) will end. But those of us who are leading the charge for fire safety also have multiple other critical activities to keep our lives moving forward in conjunction with our family lives and professional lives. So slowly on we trod.

Having been involved recently in the repair of a Palo Alto home that was severely burned and damaged, I have also become aware of the emotional and psychological toll a fire brings to one's personal life when suddenly your place of solace is uninhabitable. It is a lot to recover from.

One of the problems a proactive FireWise committee has is trying to get the neighborhood design and landscape guidelines to become more current with the new weather and land conditions we face in this century, versus when the guidelines and laws were originally written (as in the last century).

We are discovering that the aesthetic visual preference for wood "au naturel" on our homes, decks and railings makes residences more like a box of matches waiting for a fire to grab them. Becoming familiar with new products that actually look natural but perform well in a heat or fire situation is one of our missions. Cement-based siding and roof products, metal railings and posts, and privacy and window screens are great alternative choices. Another fire-safe product would be glass skylights instead of plastic.

Another challenge for fire safety is keeping plants and trees further away from the house (5 feet or more) and trees "limbed up" higher from the ground so the fire ladder effect does not easily make a whole tree start to easily blaze. Even plants in pots that get tall and are close to a wood-shingled house are in danger of bringing a wildfire inside the home more quickly.

Exterior lights with halogen lamps near the ground can emit extreme heat. A few dead leaves caught up in a cobweb around the hot bulb could create an inadvertent spark.

I bring these concerns to your attention in the hopes that your neighborhood (which is next to mine!) is also actively pursuing proactive safety measures in case of a community crisis from a wildfire or earthquake, and I urge that you will become actively involved. Let us remember that we are all in this together and that any positive action that blesses one, blesses all of us.

Iris Harrell is board chairman of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View ( She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or

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