Fire Meets Its Match : Concrete Home Tucked Into Hill Survives Malibu Blaze Unscathed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The true test of Mary Ellen Strote's dream house on Saddle Peak was a trial by fire. And it passed.

As the Calabasas/Malibu firestorm raced across the Santa Monica Mountains, Strote's concrete house built into a hill escaped virtually unscathed--even though it was raked by swirling fingers of flame.

"There is no worse case than this," Strote, 51, said last week as she walked among the blackened manzanita that surround her home and sprout atop its dirt roof. "I did not have one bit of damage inside the house."

Although the view from her front porch is of a landscape charred and denuded by the fire, Strote's three-bedroom burrow performed exactly as planned--like a luxury bomb shelter.

Fire officials and environmentalists praised Strote's foresight in building a house that not only resists nature's fiery tantrums, but also blends so well into the natural landscape that it is virtually invisible.

"Sounds to me like she thought ahead a little bit," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Montoya, who oversees the Malibu fire prevention unit. "Construction is very important."

Some suggested that Strote's house could serve as a model for future development in the Santa Monicas, forsaking faux chateaus for more sensible designs.

"Two things impress me about that house," said Calabasas planning commissioner and Sierra Club leader Dave Brown. "One is that it survived the fire. But in addition to that, it is unobtrusive. The hillside is beautiful. . . .

"When they build these white stucco houses on the hilltops . . . they destroy it for everybody else," Brown said.

Not that Strote would wish upon anyone the hassles she went through to build her dream house--a 4,000-square-foot steel-reinforced concrete structure tucked into the side of a mountain west of Topanga Canyon.

It took more than three years to build and went many thousands of dollars over budget. To this day, Strote will not say how much it cost, but concrete contractors said similar structures can run at least $1 million.

Most of the overruns, Strote said, stemmed from problems with the architect and various contractors who signed on and then quit because of the complexity of the job.

But Strote said it was worth the effort when she drove back to her house after the fire. She looked at the site of a traditional wooden house on her property. All that remained was the foundation and fireplace. After a steam cleaning to remove scorch marks, her concrete house looked as good as new.

"I figured if I was going to live up here I did not want to live in fear. And I don't--especially now," she said.

The reinforced concrete roof of the house is topped with native plants in two feet of soil. "The theory was that they would burn off and then sprout again," said Strote, who belongs to the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy and is a member of the board of the Cold Creek Canyon Preserve.

The foot-thick concrete walls are the same pinkish color as sandstone boulders nearby, and the house, which conforms to the topography, can only be seen from certain angles. Although it was designed to withstand wildfires, Strote evacuated when the flames headed her way. "I trusted the house, but I didn't," she said. "You know what I mean?"

Just as well, said firefighter Montoya.

"Even if you build a concrete house with recessed windows, that's no guarantee that it won't burn," he said. "It sure helps though. Construction standards are important, but so is weed clearance and so is access and so is water."

Nonetheless, Strote said she has faith that her house will withstand whatever nature throws at it--or on it. "It's just a terrific way to build," Strote said. "If you can stand doing it."

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