Our Unwelcome Visitor — Fire — And How We Saved Our Home

Editor's note: A few weeks before the Carr Fire invaded the north state, we published 79-year-old Richard Douse's article in which he shared how he and his 71-year-old wife built their off-the-grid home in Eastern Shasta County.

On September 28 the Douses faced and survived their own trial by fire that put their home and their lives in danger. Today Richard and Tammy tell that story. 

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From Richard’s Viewpoint ...

It had been a beautiful morning. I was two days past my most recent “chemo” adventure and was beginning to feel human again. Still, exhaustion was the name of the game, and I was getting ready for an afternoon nap when a whiff of smoke through an open window caught my attention.

My wife Tammy and I live on a ridge, actually on the edge of the ridge that looks down on Oak Run Road about a quarter mile below. We had built our home over a two-and-a-half-year period, working on it after work and on weekends. The possibility of fire has always been in the back of our minds ever since we bought the land, but the view of the Lassen Peak range was compelling, and made the risk seem worth it. Now, however, we were going to find out; running away from this fire would not be an option for either of us.

I went outside and immediately saw we had a problem. Smoke was boiling up and coming straight toward us due to a brisk wind from an area down where Oak Run Road and our road, Rim Rock Lane, meet. There was not a moment to lose. I ducked inside and yelled for Tammy to call 911. She tried, but our phone and Internet line were already toast.

We had built our home, initially relying on a rain-water collection system to provide water that we store in 2300-gallon tanks. (Click here for the story of how the Douses built their home.) In addition, on a whim, I had purchased a Pacer 5 hp portable water pump with 125 feet of 1 1/2 inch hose. Every spring I tested it to make sure everything worked. Now was the time to use it.

I rushed over to our tractor garage to get the pump out and roll it over to a water tank that I knew was full. The smoke was now billowing up the ridge and I knew there was very little time if we were going to fight this thing and win. I collected the suction hose and brought a ladder over to the tank so I could remove the cover and get things set up. The pump requires being primed before it will suck water so I dashed over to get a water hose to prime it.

In the attempt to connect the fire hose to the unit I found to my dismay that I had, after the spring testing, rolled up the hose with the pump connection fitting on the inside of the roll. That meant unrolling the entire roll of hose and then straightening things out. By now I could begin to hear the roar of the flames and there was no time to lose.

It’s amazing how adrenaline can make a guy who only a few minutes before had been as weak as an overworked kitten, stronger than he had felt in months. Good thing too, because I had prematurely turned on the pump which filled the hose and made it very heavy. I needed to get all 125 feet of it over to our patio to defend against the once beautiful Blue Oak I knew was a very real threat to the house. Sure enough, no sooner than I dragged it there and opened the nozzle the tree simply exploded in a ball of flame higher than the house and with a roar that's impossible to describe unless you’ve worked on a flight line where military jets were being launched.

I was lucky. Especially so since I had no time to even put on a shirt. Thankfully the wind that had brought the fire to us, also blew back water from my fire hose and kept me well soaked with spray and ash. Within minutes of beating back the worst flames of the oak tree, I looked up and saw the welcome sight of the belly of a plane overhead and its load pouring down. Although some of it did hit our house and me, its main target was in trying to prevent the fire from reaching our neighbors' beautiful two-story home about 400 feet away. Unfortunately, the drop was unsuccessful as I remember looking over and seeing what I thought was his wood patio on fire.

I spent the next 20 minutes or so dousing the remaining trees and brush next to our house while Tammy was out of my sight, working on her own project - saving the RV garage we had lived in for the two-and-a-half years it took us to build our home.

From Tammy's Viewpoint ...

It was a typical day, nothing out of the ordinary, and I had started thinking about dinner when I heard Dick yell, “Call 911, there’s a fire”.

I looked out the dining room window to see a huge smoke cloud coming up the ridge toward our home. I tried calling 911 on the land line, only to find it didn’t work. I then tried my cell phone and finally reached a 911 operator who wanted to know which county my emergency was in. After trying to get our emergency explained, a third person listened to me. I gave our address, and she asked if I was in Millville, I said yes and she told me units were in route. That was reassuring. We later learned they were responding to a different fire!

It was now time to gather the things we needed to take so we could evacuate if it came to that. I fully trusted my ex-Navy guy to handle any issue with setting up our emergency fire-fighting equipment. We had practiced; we had a plan. I grabbed computers and back-up unit and put them in my car. I rushed back to get purse, keys, medicines and realized the cat was scared. So I grabbed her carrier and put her safely in the back of the car.I saw the fire moving toward our RV garage and ran to get the hose and realized the fire was right next to a 5-gallon propane tank! I got a hose and began putting out that fire.

Then I turned to putting out spot fires around the base of some of our big oak trees. I decided to check the back of the RV garage to see what was happening there. Yikes! Smoke and ash are just billowing up, so I grabbed a water hose and start spraying the oak tree. The smoke was thick and the ash so heavy it was difficult to breath. It got so bad I had to retreat to the shelter of the RV port. I could hear planes flying and went back to the front of the RV garage and saw I needed to put out more spot fires. Another air tanker came and I ducked under shelter but still found fire retardant on my back from the air drop.

As I continued to work on small smoldering spot fires I realized the fire had surrounded us. I watched a gray pine torch on the property to the east of us, plus fire heading to our neighbor’s home. After what felt like a very long time two sheriffs' cars rolled up and asked if we were going to evacuate. I said no, and he said, “I will put up two tags; if you leave, take one down so we know you left.” At this point, I am looking around and both sides of my ridge are burned, burning and smoldering and replied, “We could use a fire truck up here”.

I will always remember him saying, “Well, they are a little involved right now...”

A Forest Service fire truck and crew showed up and later an inmate crew to help us with the fire, clean up, wash off our solar panels and to put out smoldering trees and brush. By this time, we were tramping through puddles of fire retardant, the white pergolas were striped in pink, and everything else seemed to be pink as well.

Thank goodness for the air support and the air tanker pilots who put fire retardant where we needed it the most. I am so grateful I married a guy who could handle any emergency with steadfastness! Two helicopters also showed up and put water on the west side of our burning ridge.

I will remember the sounds and visions of the Silver Fire: Dick yelling, “Call 911, there’s a fire”, seeing the first cloud of smoke, trying to reach 911, the cat howling in her carrier in the back of the car, the smoke detector in the travel trailer screech, the sounds of the air tankers, spotter planes, helicopters flying, dropping water on the west ridge, seeing the sheets of fire retardant fall across our entrance on the south, and an enormous and ancient bulldozer that appeared from behind our rock wall, clanking across the west ridge and then heading out our entrance.

The Forest Service then helped wash things with their equipment. A Cal Fire unit showed up and they promised to return the next day to help clean the solar panels as they are our source of power. The inmate crews kept watch and sent water into smoldering oak trees that had turned into chimneys. The smoke/burnt smell was awful, but we chose to stay knowing if we left they would not let us back in. Crews came and worked off and on all day Saturday doing mop up, cutting trees, and putting out hidden fires in the base of many trees.

We didn’t have dinner that night, except maybe for a snack. I do remember setting down and fixing a Prosecco and apricot nectar Bellini and being ever so grateful that our home survived, and so sorry that out neighbors lost their beautiful, two-story home.

Richard Explains Why Their Home Survived ...

Why did our home survive? For one thing, we were prepared, and second, we were there. However, our preparation began more than a decade ago when we were building our home. We installed a product called Hardi Plank, essentially a concrete siding that can withstand a blowtorch. We installed a metal roof, and, after a fireman friend warned us about how firebrands can be sucked into your attic through eve vents, I covered the 1/4-inch screens with an additional 1/8-inch screens. Then we poured a minimum of 4 feet of concrete walkway all around our house. Also, it became an annual ritual to weed whack the grass all around the house and other buildings as soon as the rains quit and they began to lose their green. For those who live in outlying areas I would encourage you to invest in a Pacer 5 hp water pump, 125 feet of fire hose, suction hose, and, if you do not have a swimming pool for water, buy a 1,000-gallon water tank and keep it filled. You may never have to use it but it’s there if you do.

Click here for more fire stories.  
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9 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    Harrowing! Thanks for this. The City Council could learn a thing or two from you.

  2. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Primary take-home lesson: If you’re going to build in fire country, you better do it right.

  3. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    At the end of the read, all I could think of was WHEW!!! I’m sure you’ve had many, more pertinent thoughts!

  4. Richard & Tammy Douse says:

    At one point, Adrienne, I was wishing I was wearing a shirt.

  5. Judy says:

    This recital is far more than an individual salvation. A few of us have been trying to encourage friends, neighbors and officials to do something with Wildland Urban Interface which surrounds so many of us in Redding. Carr Fire and the three subsequent wildfires including the lastest today give some urgency to these appeals which have thus far fallen on deaf ears. The writer and his wife saved themselves, their home and property by being prepared, preventative and particularly courageous. All of us need this type of activity and ability.

    There are over 8,000 acres of wildland in our village. Only one home in Sunset Terrace was lost during Carr Fire which did not have open space or proximate plant incendiary causative ignition. Clearing, providing access, obtaining a large water supply with a delivery method and being home is the only way to protect ourselves from recurrent nightmares of fire. More firefighters and equipment will never be enough to fight a Carr Fire. Lacking proper prevention, maintenance and preparation; evacuation and destruction are the only alternatives.

    Thank you for sending this message of hope and real success. It harkens back to pioneer days when people came prepared with food, weapons, fire prevention, school teachers and everything needed to make life possible without any government support which was hundreds of miles away. We should never have lost that intangible self reliance!

    Randall R. Smith

    • Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

      I think I’ll write a story about how, despite having our property cleared for over a hundred feet from our home and garage, having most of the trees on the hills on our property cut and the rest trimmed…..getting a clean bill of health from Cal Fire…..having several hoses ready to fight the fire….we, after staying on the property 8 hours after we were evacuated realized that there would never be any agency defending our property (no fire trucks, planes or helicopters) and that, having to crane our heads to see the top of the tower of fire and smoke that was bearing down on us, it was time to leave.

  6. Janine Hall says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I was on pins and needles and so glad you survived.

  7. Chris Harvey says:

    Richard and Tammy, thank you for sharing the details of your fire fighting efforts and your preparedness. You two did an amazing job of saving your beautiful home!

  8. sue says:

    Amazing how you both have worked together to build your home and then to save it. And what really gets to me is the fact that you, Richard, were just 2 days past chemo. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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