Randi Malkin Steinberger’s book No Circus collects photographs of buildings tented for termite fumigation around Los Angeles. It includes an essay by D. J. Waldie, excerpted in part below.
If you live in Chicago or Cleveland, you may never have seen a house tented for termite fumigation. Dry-wood-termite infestation—the usual reason for tent fumigation in the southern and western parts of the United States—may become more common as the global climate warms.
Termites don’t take cold well. Neither do cockroaches. In an evolutionary sense, termites are the cousins of cockroaches that picked up other habits, including a knack for colony formation.
Like ants, a termite colony has a queen, but unlike ants, the colony also has a king. Once mated, the termite queen and king are monogamous and life-long partners. The queen may live as long as fifty years in some termite species. There is a court of princesses around the queen, waiting, infertile, until the queen dies.
Left undiscovered long enough, the termite colony will prosper until the apparently intact timbers of the house are a paper-thin skin over the hollowness inside.
A stake-bed truck arrives with the men. Inevitably, when hard, physical labor must be done quickly and with skill in Southern California, the men are Latino. They unload bandoliers of metal clips, bolster-like sand snakes, and the folded tarpaulins.
One of the men climbs a ladder to the roof of the house and judges how best to begin tenting it—a topological problem of covering a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional one. The man on the roof unfolds the first of what could be several tarpaulins.
The pieces unfurl down from the eaves to another man on the ground. The man on the roof and the men on the ground begin overlapping the tarp pieces, bunching the edges where they meet to make a seal and joining the pieces with pairs of clips every foot or so.
The house begins to look as stitched together as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.
On the ground, sand snakes hold down the joined pieces. The ground must be wet so that the weighted edge of the tarpaulin presses into the soil. The completed tent is supposed to be gastight.
Inside the house, doors that were closed are opened, as are cupboards, closets, drawers, trunks, and chests. If the homeowner has a safe big enough, it must be opened for the fumigator’s inspection to be certain no one is hiding inside. The rooms are searched a final time.
Warning notices are posted in English and Spanish on each corner, seam, and doorway.
At the end of two hours, the house is both laid bare and invisible. From the outside, it’s a house-shaped enigma. Inside, daylight is filtered into party colors.
A little later, poison, under pressure, begins to fill the empty rooms.
Elastec, headquartered in Carmi, Illinois, sells tarpaulins. The tarpaulins are assembled from nylon fabric laminated on both sides with vinyl. The finished tarps could be almost any color, but Elastec offers ten choices: orange, black, yellow, green, white, red, blue, gray, cocoa, and tan. Some finished tarps are a single color, but most are assembled in stripes, often blue and yellow, red and yellow, or blue, red, and yellow together.
Why tarps are made with stripes of bright colors has two not very convincing explanations. Neither involves circus tents.
The pattern of colors was supposed to be unique to a particular pest-control company, serving as a kind of advertisement. Or agricultural fumigators formerly covered rows of fruit trees with wide canvas strips before gassing them, and termiters later sewed or clipped together these strips to make a whole house tent.
Although colorful, fumigation tents disturb some passersby, perhaps by mistaken association with circuses. There are other associations. Poisonous snakes, insects, and frogs are brightly colored, often in patterns of red and yellow.
Apart from the advertising value of tarp colors, nearly all fumigation companies today hang a business banner on the houses they tent. The Pest Control Operators of California holds a competition each year to award the best design for a banner. The eleventh annual contest was won by Killroy Pest Control of Campbell, California.
The judges chose Killroy’s banner because it was professional, easy to read, and included, as Pest Control Technology magazine reports, “a photograph of satisfied customers.”
“I think that the tent on a home sometimes scares people, so this banner looks approachable. It makes fumigation look a little friendlier,” the Killroy vice president and co-owner Richard Schmidt said.
Under California regulations, a fumigated house must be tented for a minimum of three days.
On the second day, a fumigator (wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus) exposes the house and starts up fans to ventilate the gas. On the third day, the workmen return.
They remove the locks that had prevented anyone but them from entering by the front and rear doors. They carefully measure any lingering toxicity in the air. They turn off the fans that have been ventilating the otherwise silent rooms. They take down the warning signs. They unclip the tarps. They unsheathe the house.
The removal of the tarps declares that the house, after days of being a danger, is safe enough again.
The inhabitants come back to unbag cereal boxes, refill the refrigerator, and let the dog loose in the yard. They close up closets, give rooms the privacy they require, and check to see if anything has gone missing while they were missing. They may pause in the business of rekindling their presence, but not sharing their anxiety with each other, to consider if the deadly gas might continue to pool somewhere inside. It has happened.
The inhabitants try to act as if nothing but annoyance has interrupted the pattern of their lives together. They try to act as if their house had not been a desolation or a portent of worse departures.