California wildfires: How homeowners in the past have rebuilt

After the wildfire: Tales of rebirth

With unusually hot weather and long-standing drought fueling this year's wildfire season, we revisit stories from our archives describing Californians who have rebuilt cherished homes and gardens following the ravages of fire.

San Diego artist and architect James Hubbell lost his landmark home to the Cedar fire in 2003, but not the will to re-create it.  In a 2007 profile by Christopher Reynolds, Hubbell described the long process of rebuilding his home and a new attachment to the landscape. "I had never known the land, the mounds, the valleys, the fascinating boulders and texture of the earth, as it was so covered with chaparral," Hubbell wrote in his 2004 book about the fire. "It is like living with someone for forty years who finally took their clothes off."  The home’s rebirth, which took several years, included new fire-retardant and energy-efficiency measures such as a gas-fired water-to-air heating system beneath the floors and steel roofs.

After their 4,000-square-foot home was destroyed in the 44,000-acre Green Meadow brush fire near Thousand Oaks in 1992, architects Cory Buckner and Nick Roberts built a 700-square-foot weekend home in Malibu with fire safety in mind.

Using their architectural expertise, the couple erected a structure clad in a hard shell of interlocking, flat and corrugated Rheinzink panels, made of a noncombustible zinc alloy. Underneath the metal finish, they installed fire-resistant gypsum board. On top of the house, they added a fire-rated composition roof as well as double-glazed windows throughout the space.

Although Keli and Dan Cadenhead's San Diego hilltop home narrowly escaped the 2003 Cedar fire, the blaze scorched much of the garden Keli had built over a 20-year period. Over the next four years, she revived the garden with a new outlook on fires. The couple installed new irrigation lines down the north face of their hill, where the fire originated, and may originate again. And as added protection for future fires, they have fire-retardant polymer spray gel on hand. 

Though some of these fire-resistant measures may seem extreme -- and costly -- a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department's brush clearance section reminded homeowners of the most effective way to prevent fires. In Barbara Thornburg's profile of Nick Roberts and Cory Buckner, Kevin Johnson suggested homeowners remove all native flammable brush up to 100 feet around the house and all deadwood up to 200 feet in severe fire hazard areas.

Can drought-resistant plants really halt the path of fire? In a 2007 profile by Debra Lee Baldwin, Suzy Schaefer shared her belief that the succulents surrounding her Rancho Santa Fe home helped save her house from the Witch Creek fire.

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