WASHOE VALLEY - Hank and Judy Alderson call their cedar-sided home Varykino Farm, after an estate in "Doctor Zhivago." Every room has a special theme - from the Spanish mission master bedroom to the French country kitchen.
It's their retirement home, but it's also in a fire trap, nestled on the top of a ravine that could act as a wildfire funnel.
Last Friday, the couple stood on their back balcony, their small herd of dogs running around their feet, and gazed down on what Hank calls their canyon. In the mornings wild rabbits can be seen hopping along the dry creek bed between sagebrush and cheat grass. The desert vegetation continues up the slope to their 2,300-square-foot-home.
"The wind comes through that saddle in the mountains there (he pointed to a notch in the Sierra Nevada to the west of the house) and just runs right up that canyon here," 68-year-old Hank Alderson said.
He keeps up the five-and-a-half acre lot and hires several extra workers in the spring and fall. But nothing can stop the marching of the weeds. The home's location is a prime spot for defensible space, an area around a home created so firefighters can more efficiently battle a threatening blaze.
Judy Alderson, 61, said that the work is too much for them to keep up with, that's why she's thankful for the help of the Student Conservation Association.
After a day of work by 14 volunteers, Varykino Farm is an example of a defensible space home.
"These guys know what they're doing and their minds are set on a specific purpose," Hank said while walking around his yard. A full metal Dumpster sat out in front of the house. The sagebrush around the house was cleared considerably.
Look northwest from Varykino Farm and you'll see Mount Rose and Slide Mountain. To the south the Sierra Nevada stretches into Douglas County for a look at Jobs Peak and a picturesque view of Washoe Lake and the wetlands. The home has four neighbors - and the Aldersons know them all, one lives in a dome house and another is an accomplished artist. The back and front porches all have latched gates, to keep the dogs inside. They have twin Belgian Griffins and a French Papillon, and the small dogs could easily get lost or devoured out in the desert.
Liz Wilcox, an intern with the Student Conservation Association, said the group needed a home in the area to use as a defensible space example, and this home had a prime location with a good layout.
The team of four interns, along with volunteers from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Pleasant Valley Fire Department, hacked sagebrush, trimmed bushes and installed lattice to prevent weed encroachment at the home.
"We do home evaluations where we assess wildfire risk to provide simple things that a family can do to protect their home," Wilcox said. "So people can see that defensible space doesn't have to be ugly."
Hank Alderson said it's nice to have so much done, but it's a constant battle living out in the desert.
"There's so very much more left to do," he said. "For us it's an unending annual project. The sagebrush pops up and the cheat grass keeps coming in. We're forever bending over and pulling things up."
The Aldersons have three access roads, one near a Mormon church, the other is the main gravel-coated entrance that takes visitors under a ranch-style sign. A third road comes out farther west beside a telephone pole.
Alderson, a retired Army Ranger, said their home in Las Vegas was bought out by a developer to build a bank. He also had a ranch in Sparks bought by the government by eminent domain to build Pyramid Highway.
"I hope nothing will happen to this one," he said, then laughed. "We set it up away from traffic to prevent future development. I'm getting tired of getting run off."
Last summer, they could see Carson City's Waterfall fire on the other side of the lake. A few months later it was the Andrew fire, which hit a bit closer to home. They watched it on a ridge a few miles from the house.
"Our game plan for a fire is to No. 1 load the dogs into the fifth wheel and move it out to Carson City," he said. "Plan A From Hell is Carson City. As an Army Ranger I always had to have a Plan B, which is to move it to Reno in case it's really bad."
n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at email@example.com or 881-1212.
Work done at the Aldersons' Washoe Valley house makes it more fire safe:
• Plastic lining placed under decorative rock landscaping to keep weeds from sprouting
• Wiring and lattice installed along the front deck and around the house to keep weeds from sprouting under the house, which could be kindling for an approaching fire
• An area of 250 by 50 feet of sagebrush was cleared to the west of the home
• Bushes and trees near the home were trimmed
• Removal of brush and weeds 20 feet from the back fence along a slope. Workers didn't clear more than 20 feet because of erosion control.