Pushed by local winds known as sundowners, the Painted Cave fire raced from the mountains to the 101 Freeway in a couple of hours. It jumped the highway and wiped out more than 600 buildings -- including three homes near his.

Daniel and his then-partner lived on a cul-de-sac next to county parkland. They watched 15-foot flames run through the grass.

"As we were packing the car, all of a sudden the fire was on us, so we got the hell out of there," he said. The streets were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. "Everybody was fleeing and going downhill in all lanes. Nobody could go uphill. No fire engine. And that's what's going to happen here."

Daniel has lived in Mission Canyon since 2000, balancing the dangers against the pleasures of canyon life. "I can't think of too many places I could live without any risk at all -- and those places, I think, would be kind of boring."

In a 2005 research paper, Thomas Cova, an associate geography professor at the University of Utah, posed a question: Should places like Mission Canyon have population limits, just as movie theaters have occupancy limits to ensure everyone can escape in an emergency?

His study, published in the journal Natural Hazards Review, includes two aerial photographs of upper Mission Canyon. One, taken in 1928, shows a scattering of trees, an orchard, four houses and two main routes in and out.

The second, taken decades later, shows abundant landscaping and houses packed together. More than 400 homes were using the same two ways out.

After his research was published, he received e-mails from all over the West. "People's genuine concern is that they moved into a canyon that wasn't too populated 20 years ago and they can't stop the development," Cova says.

Newer subdivisions are required to have wider roads and better access for fire engines than Mission Canyon does.

But Cova says planning regulations around the country pay scant heed to the number of people who will have to use exit roads in a wildfire.

He grew up in the Bay Area. His career has been shaped by the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which destroyed nearly 3,000 structures and killed 25 people in a matter of hours. Many of them died in or near their cars at the end of a long line of traffic, trying to flee a neighborhood of narrow, winding roads that funneled to four exits, two of which were blocked by the fire.

"It was an ugly thing," Cova says. "I was living a couple of miles from where the people died."

He vividly remembers the wide band of flames roaring through eucalyptus trees, the news accounts of victims: The family that burned to death in their pickup truck. The teenage girl who became disoriented in the smoke.

Later, in graduate school at UC Santa Barbara, Cova chose wildfire evacuations as his thesis topic. Was Oakland an isolated situation? he wondered.

He studied the Santa Barbara area because its mountainous backdrop has a fiery history: the Refugio blaze in 1955, the Coyote in 1964, the Sycamore in 1977, the Painted Cave in 1990.

"Some of these fires were enormous and very violent, but there were no homes in the area where the fire occurred. But now the homes are out there."

This month, the Gap fire threatened Goleta.

The West, Cova found, is studded with scenic firetraps. "There are literally thousands of fire-prone communities. . . . with a static road network and steadily increasing housing stock," he wrote in his 2005 journal article. "In most of these areas the likelihood of an extreme fire is increasing. . . . "

Preparing for the worst

Jenny Cushnie has called Mission Canyon home for more than 30 years. She didn't think about fire when she arrived. "I came here from Switzerland and before that from Scotland. Fire was not an issue," she says. "Mold was."