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Living Off the Grid: Rebuilding Their Own Reality After a Wildfire

6/14/2011 12:35:01 PM

Tags: living off the grid, off the grid home, off the grid, Colorado off-the-grid home, rebuilding after fire, Sugarloaf Mountain off-the-grid home, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailThe wildfire raging in Arizona right now has me thinking about Rolland and Betty, an amazing couple whose home we covered in Natural Home more than a decade ago. Betty and Rolland lost nearly everything when a massive wildfire swept through Sugarloaf Mountain outside of Boulder, Colorado, in 1989. But when the Red Cross came around and asked what they needed after the fire, they requested only compost. Dirty Face, the tree squirrel who had lived in the cabin’s front wall, had been badly burned and kept returning to the site where the compost pile once stood, looking for food. A few days later, he died.

The loss of the animals and the trees were more devastating to Rolland and Betty than the loss of their cabin and outbuildings. “The tree swallows were all looking around, saying, ‘Hey, man, what happened?’” Rolland says. “Those birds are our spirits. They’re very much a part of what we are.”

Rolland bought his property in 1975 because it was, in his opinion, “the most magical place I had ever seen.” The shock, for him, was to realize “just how much of that ambience was in the trees.”

As soon as ground was cool enough that it wouldn’t melt their sleeping bags, Betty and Rolland were back on their land, considering how to rebuild. They were able to live comfortably, relying on food stored in stone cellars and electricity from their damaged but workable solar panels. “We felt like the land had to show us what it wanted us to do, how we should be here,” Rolland says. “This is what we had. It was done this way, we had to find the wisdom in it.”

The couple spent thousands of dollars on grass seed that they broadcast widely to fight the noxious weeds that took root after the fire. “It really paid off, because all of the deer and animals hang around here—we have some of the best flavors in town,” Rolland says.

The animals and birds have returned, and Betty and Rolland have rebuilt their off-the-grid compound, which includes a two-room cabin, a rolfing studio, a shower house, an outhouse and a machine shop. They say it’s better than it was before, living out Betty’s belief that “every supposed tragedy is a gift.”

“When something bad like that happens, it’s all about how you make it into a positive influence,” Rolland says. “It was a force that was good for us. As much as we didn’t like it, we could replay this thing, only this time we could do it better. We considered the period before the fire our research. The fire was a way to take what we learned from that research and put it back into action. A lot of things we did exactly the same, but some things we really improved.”

The couple had no insurance and eschewed loans offered by the Small Business Administration to fire victims because they didn’t want the paperwork or the debt. “We didn’t want someone else rebuilding our reality,” Rolland says.

The fire deteriorated the couple’s solar panels to the point that they are able to collect only about 100 watts of power, but that’s enough to serve their 24-volt DC system and to run their photovoltaic well pump. Rolland, a former research engineer with the Laboratory of Atmosphere and Space Physics, made all the electrical connections and boxes and wired all the buildings himself. “I don’t want my electricity to be scary,” he says. “This is petting electricity. You can touch it.”

Three battery packs in the underground cellar collect and store up to three months worth of electricity. When Betty or Rolland hear gurgling from a battery, they know it is fully charged and move a wire to fill the next one. The system supplies more than enough power to meet the couple’s needs, although Rolland admits that not everyone could live with the available current at his place. “A lot of times people are just not making good choices about the appliances they buy,” he says. “Sometimes they have an addiction to a computer or a TV.”

Rolland and Betty’s washing machine is a 1930s ringer with a 24-volt motor, and they use water left over after baths to wash clothes. “I’m always shopping the beginning of the century” for appliances,” Rolland says, but he does make AC available for Betty’s typewriter, blender and vacuum cleaner.

While Rolland does happen to be a rocket scientist, he says it doesn’t take one to invent your own technology. “It’s buried inside all of us,” he says. “All you have to do is leave yourself room to find it. I think most of us don’t realize it because we’re barricaded from it by regulation and fear.”

His personal building code—no plywood, no plastic, and nothing that smells bad when it burns—is the only creed Rolland adheres to. The new cabin is built from trees charred in the fire, milled at a local sawmill that opened its doors to fire victims without insurance. The trim and the windows are made from old barrels used to treat ore during the gold-mining era and barrels from a New Jersey brewery. The roof is made of clay tiles that Rolland found at a yard sale; the handmade scalloping on the peak took two years to finish.

Rolland admits that having several small buildings rather than one large structure creates a bigger footprint on the land. “But you’re not seeing the whole footprint of any residence because you don’t see off-site impacts,” he says. “We’re not sending any garbage to Central America; we’re not buying power generated in California. All our impact is right here on this site.”

betty and rolland exterior cabin 

Neighbors helped Rolland and Betty’s rebuild their two-room cabin from trees killed in the fire. It has a living area downstairs and a sleeping area upstairs. Rolland spent two years perfecting the metal scalloping on the roof, which is made from salvaged tiles. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

betty and rolland fire damage buildings 

Rolland’s stone stucco watch-repair shop (right) was the only building to survive the fire. The new cabin stands beside it on the left. The couple believes that building smaller buildings for different functions encourages wildlife to interact with them. “If the places are small enough and we have enough windows so wildlife can relate to the fact that we’re temporarily inhabiting these units and we move from place to place, they can understand us,” Rolland says. “They become real curious, look in windows and doors, see how our day is progressing in relationship to their day.” Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

betty and rolland studio

Betty’s rolfing studio was the first building to be rebuilt. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

betty and rolland table 

Simple and serene, Betty and Rolland’s cabin has just enough space. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison  

betty and rolland watches 

Miraculously, Rolland’s stone and stucco watch repair shop--and the watches inside--survived the fire. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 



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