Burning questions – Who needs defensible space? (Opinion)

Jaena Bloomquist / Columnist
Jaena Bloomquist

The quaking aspens around my house appear nervous. Their signature feature –the quaking leaves—seems a little more vigorous lately, as though they notice all the chainsaws and stacks of tree limbs by the side of residential roads and fear they’re next. Well, they probably are.

The term “defensible space” has been floating around our wildfire-prone area of the world for the last few years, (it became required by law in California in 2021) but it’s only become a harsh reality for my household this year, when we were notified by our homeowner’s insurance company that we needed to show photographic proof that we’d taken defensible space measures—which meant cutting down or severely trimming back a full third of the trees on our property.

What is defensible space? According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), it is “the buffer between your structure and the surrounding area. Adequate defensible space acts as a barrier to slow or halt the progress of fire that would otherwise engulf your property.” Defensible Space | CAL FIRE

The measures our household has been required to take in order to keep our homeowners’ insurance include cutting down all trees and bushes within five feet of the house and deck; removing any dead grass and plants within thirty feet; replacing combustible fencing with non-combustible material, and so on. We’ve had to say goodbye to the gorgeous evergreen tree (essentially a twenty-foot-high Christmas tree) next to our master bedroom window. It was one of our favorite backyard features; now there’s just a sad, flat stump and a sense of loss where our beautiful giant used to stand. What a terrible irony, removing something that provides us with oxygen to breathe, that shields us from the sun and provides joy and ease –and a place for our kids to play—because its very existence next to our homes makes it dangerous. And the reason these trees have become dangerous is because of us.

Our situation is far from unique in the west, but with each passing year it’s becoming more familiar to folks across the US. Smoke from the ongoing Canadian wildfires, which suffused the East coast and Midwest for the first time this June, has alerted a new demographic of Americans that wildfires aren’t just the burden of the western US, or Australia or Europe. They’re starting to affect everyone. The burden of defensible space measures may soon be a necessity for everyone, coast to coast.

We should have a grim slogan for things like this: “Coming soon to a town near you.” Shoring up homes against flash floods –which is also a problem for our home; we could be flooded out by the melting snowpack, or we could burn up in a wildfire—installing A/C in homes that never used to need it because heat domes are beginning to happen more often, in more places (I’ll cover these in a future Burning Questions column); creating defensible space around properties… More and more of these kinds of adaptation measures are making their necessity felt around the country and the globe.

If you’re like me, you may find yourself scowling, muttering a few choice curses under your breath, when reading about things like this—or when you get the notification in the mail like we did, and realize the implications for your home, not to mention the threat to your family’s safety. You may even find yourself declaring that the risk is overblown, that your home will be fine.

I hear you, and I agree with the sentiment. I privately (and a little irrationally) feel confident that my home will never be directly threatened by fire or flood.

But here’s something interesting I found recently: A piece by conservative columnist Bret Stephens in the New York Times in October 2022, after visiting Greenland’s rapidly melting glaciers. He had previously thought that “the severity of the threat [of climate change was] wildly exaggerated and… the proposed cures all smacked of old-fashioned statism mixed with new-age religion.” Opinion | Climate Change Is Real. Markets, Not Governments, Offer the Cure. – The New York Times (

Seeing the dramatic effects of global warming taking place before his eyes changed his mind, however. (He seems to have come around to the same ugly truth that our insurance company has discovered.) What to me is particularly striking about his piece is a statement he got from renowned hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, who has made climate action a priority in his investments: “‘If you face something that is potentially existential… existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you though the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.'”

Defensible space measures, as ugly and sad as they can be, help in that end. So do other measures, and so does talking about the realities of orange skies over Manhattan, and the effects of hazardous wildfire smoke on the lungs of our precious children.

I’ll miss our enormous backyard Christmas tree terribly, but knowing its absence will help keep us and our neighbors safe is reassuring. We are making ourselves ready for the future as best we can. And heck, now that there’s a plethora of increasingly inexpensive electric vehicles to choose from, and solar panels for our roofs, and climate-aware congresspeople we can elect, we might just make it a really good future.

Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit

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