If you lived in a neighborhood that was incinerated in a matter of minutes, what would you do when the smoke cleared?
Would you say a prayer of thanks for getting out alive and vow never to return?
Or would you tempt fate, knowing firsthand the destructive force of infernos driven by Santa Ana winds, and rebuild on the very spot?
Too many Californians are becoming way too familiar with that very dilemma. Last week, I stood in the ashes of a mobile home park in the Malibu mountains, talking to a couple who had lost everything but hope to return one day. Richard Deamer, a retired Ventura psychiatrist, saw the column and wrote to tell me he and his wife, Ann, lost their house in last December’s Thomas fire.
“Our home was totally destroyed in five minutes,” Deamer said. “We had only 20 minutes to get out.”
For weeks, he and his wife “were in a dither” about whether to return.
“In medicine, we learn about risk-benefit situations,” Deamer said. “I think Ann and I feel the benefits of living in Southern California are still worth the risks.”
And so their new house, rising from the ashes of the former, is about half done.
“Is this a good example of what the lawyers call willful ignorance?” Deamer asked.
I guess that depends. As I said last week, I hope the obvious messages of the latest deadly fires are beginning to sink in. We need to be smarter about where and how we build in a state that can’t make it through a calendar year without biblical catastrophes ranging from drought-driven hellfire to bursting dams to rivers of mud and boulders to the roiling of the ground beneath our feet.
To understand what the Deamers did, and why, you have to go back a few years.
“It was 1974 and Ann and I were looking at houses during the last year of my training at UCLA,” said Deamer, who had been a pilot and a U.S. Navy doctor assigned to counsel returning servicemen traumatized by their experiences in Vietnam. “We came upon a nice little place on top of a hill.”
They were almost broke, Deamer said, but put $5,000 down on the $52,000 house, moved in, raised two daughters, and grew to love the neighborhood, as well as the stunning views of mountain and sea.
On Dec. 4, at about 7:30 in the evening, Deamer looked to the southwest from his back deck and spotted trouble.
“I called 911 and said, ‘I think I see a fire in the Santa Paula area. Has that been called in yet?’ ” Deamer said.
Yes, it had been. Deamer went to bed as the winds whistled. Three hours later, Ann was rousting him.
“Rich, Rich, get up, we’ve gotta get out of here,” she said.
Deamer heard police on bullhorns ordering an evacuation. They grabbed some legal papers and photos. Deamer searched for their cat Saber, but the fire was approaching and they had to go. They drove past flames and through smoke to safety.
The fire that raged through parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, burning nearly 300,000 acres and more than 1,000 structures, destroyed the Deamers’ home. They knew by the next morning that it was gone, and drove up two days later to find nothing but ash.
“Over a three- or four-week period, we considered all the variables,” Deamer said, and they went to see houses for sale in the area. But nothing felt right.
“I didn’t want to live in another house and start over in a new neighborhood,” said Ann.
Richard, 77, said he and Ann, 76, still feel “young at heart,” and tied to years-long routines that were established up on that hill.
But can it ever be considered safe up there, where Santa Anas howl? With recent droughts that could be tied to climate change, the Thomas fire could be a sign of more to come. On the other hand, it’s not as if the Deamers were living on the edge of a forest. There are grassy slopes nearby, but the Deamers hadn’t seen a fire anything like this, and they wanted to believe there wouldn’t be another in the years they have left.
“We looked at 43 years, raising our girls, and all the good times with neighbors,” Richard Deamer said. “People 20 years younger than us said, ‘We’re going to rebuild, what about you?’ ”
Awhile back, as construction began, neighbors held a block party in a cul-de-sac. Now the frame is up on the Deamers’ place, but this house won’t be built like the last.
“We’re required now by the city of Ventura to fireproof it as much as possible,” said Deamer, who was waiting on the delivery of shingles made of a concrete-like material.
At the house, he showed me how the attic openings had been sealed, to prevent embers from flying in. The house will have sprinklers in every room, no combustible vegetation near the structure and no wooden fencing.
The Deamers had good insurance, which covers the Oxnard apartment they’ve been living in temporarily, and they won’t lose money on the rebuild.
But not everyone has chosen to return, or has been able to. Jeff Lambert, Ventura’s development director, said that about 50% of the lost homes have either been permitted for rebuilding or are in the review process. They’ll all have to meet the new, stricter city requirements for fire and seismic safety.
Peter Partyka, a Los Angeles architect, told me he thinks new building restrictions are designed more to save lives than property. To save buildings, he said, wood frames should be avoided — replaced with metals, cinder blocks and other non-combustible materials.
“We need to think differently,” Partyka said about the layout of houses. A standard rectangle isn’t as safe, he said, as a U-shaped design that serves as its own firebreak. And roof sprinklers would also help.
Sounds great, but not everyone has the budget for fire-resistant features.
In the 1993 Green Meadows fire near the Ventura County-Malibu line, architect Cory Buckner and her late husband, Nick Roberts, lost their home. They rebuilt on the same spot, and also later designed and built a smaller studio on the same property.
“It was rather costly to build, and not for everyone,” said Buckner. The studio had no overhangs for fire to get under. It had metal siding, double-glaze windows and fire sprinklers.
And the experiment worked.
Last week, when fire returned, the house was destroyed, same as the one before it. The studio survived.
Up on the hill in Ventura, the Deamers said they expect to move into their new house by March, and they can’t wait. There’s hope, Richard Deamer said, referring to all those who are suffering through recent losses. What began a year ago, and knocked the Deamers low, has turned into a new lease.
“But if it happens again, I’m not coming back,” said Ann Deamer.
Where would she go?
As much as she loves California, she has a twin sister in Virginia, she said, and might move east.
“It rains there.”