The weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday has always marked a prized tradition in my parents’ house: Christmas tree hunting.

When I got married I would drag my husband down our local Forest Service Ranger Station to purchase a tree tag, and we’d go on the annual tree hunt whenever possible.

We always enjoyed ourselves. The fresh blanket of snow, clean mountain air, and sharp smell of tree sap on our fingers made up for our wet pants and frozen toes.

That was before the great shift happened. One particularly snowy Christmas tree hunt, I found the perfect tree, a white fir that stood around 7 feet tall and was coated in a fresh dusting of glittering snow. The branches were full and perfectly spaced and begged to be adorned with ornaments. My husband took a saw to its base and it happened. I felt guilty – stone-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach guilty. I was depriving a tree of its full, majestic life. Normally it would still be looking out over the forest long after I was gone, but I had killed it for my holiday celebration. We took it home, but the holiday just wasn’t the same, and every Thanksgiving since I’ve made sure my weekend held no room for the family tree hunt.

I’ve recently had a change of heart. While browsing the Living With Fire website (LivingWithFire.info), I came across a fact sheet that articulates the benefits of tree thinning. While one part of the paper addresses tree thinning around the home (good information for people with big trees on their properties), the other part addresses forest health. There were a lot of points to sell me on the idea of tree thinning, but there was one that stood out in particular: tree thinning is helpful for reducing wildfire threat. Thinner tree stands means less fuel so that a fire won’t burn so intensely. It also means that fire will stay closer to the ground so that the big, healthy trees won’t catch easily. Read the paper here.

Understanding how Christmas tree cutting allows predetermined areas to be thinned for the betterment of the forest has eased my guilty conscience greatly.

This year’s tree hunt was one of my favorites yet. My tree is stunning, and the forest we left behind will be healthier and will hopefully fare better in a wildfire, thanks to our family tradition.

Happy Holidays!

Natalie Newcomer

It seems like the holidays are a perfect reason to justify making sure the house and yard are in good shape. A recent conversation with my mother, in which she declared her intentions to come for dinner, visit with her grand dogs, and see my fall decorations, had me running for the garage and the rake.

Truth be told, my yard was a bit of a mess. I can always think of something better to do than to clean up the flower beds beneath my front window, pick the dried grasses out of my rock garden, and rake up the pine needles, pine cones, and cottonwood leaves in my back yard.

This may be a bit farfetched, but I’d like to suggest that wildfires and mothers have something in common: you really can’t predict when they’re going to turn up.

I’ve heard it said that an ember can travel a mile ahead of a wildfire. This would mean that even if a house is out of the way of a fire, a traveling ember can lodge itself in a dry place and ignite. The Living With Fire website features an interactive display that shows 20 places around a house that are vulnerable to embers; dead plant matter is a major contributor to the list of potential hazards. Check it out here to see where your house may be vulnerable.

My work was cut out for me. I checked my roof for rouge plant matter, cleaned leaves and pine needles out of the rain gutters, scavenged the debris out from underneath my deck (that was terrifying), cleared away all dead grasses and leaves out from my flowerbed and from under bushes, and raked up the debris and leaves that had collected by my fence.

After an afternoon of muddy boots, endless trash bags, and blue fingers – honestly, Natalie, way to wait until it’s 40 degrees outside to do yard work – my house is a little more ready to survive a wildfire, a wind-blown ember, and a visit from my mother.

Happy raking!

Natalie Newcomer

Join us as we follow Natalie Newcomer’s journey through the perils and joys of living in the wildland-urban interface.

Autumn at the new house has been unbelievable. The cottonwoods around the nearby stream have dropped their bright gold leaves and the sagebrush behind the house has taken on a whole new smell: it’s crisper, cleaner, and headier.

When buying my house I thought only about the price, the beauty of the surrounding neighborhood and land, and the great schools my kids would be zoned for. It wasn’t until I spoke with a neighbor that the dots began to connect: my little community was smack dab in the middle of fire country. It turns out there’s a technical term for it: the wildland-urban interface. I chose a house on the edge of the wildland, and now a fire could run right up to my doorstep. So much for tarantulas and scorpions being the worst of my problems!

What is a homeowner to do? This is what insurance is for, right? Isn’t the best I can hope for is enough notice to evacuate my animals and prized possessions before we’re toast? Apparently not.

The Reno Gazette Journal published a piece on Saturday about the two year anniversary of the Caughlin Fire. It talked about the chaos residents experienced during their middle of the night evacuations and the key issues that caused homes to burn. The author stakes the claim that these things could have been averted. People can have materials ready for evacuation, and practices around the home can give a structure a chance to survive against a storm of embers.

Exploring the Living With Fire website, referenced at the end of the article, I found a wealth of information on how to give my house a chance in a fire, and the firefighters a better opportunity to save it. Nevadans are industrious and ever expanding. We live in areas, even in the midst of cities and towns, that are wildfire prone. The costs can be high, but the rewards are endless with gorgeous skies, abundant wildlife, and rugged and beautiful Great Basin vegetation.

Join me as I learn about how to adapt to be part of a thriving and wildfire-safe community in a state where fire is part of the natural lifecycle!

More to come soon!

Natalie Newcomer