From today's New York Times:

Fighting Fire With Steel, Pools and Plaster
By JOSEPH GIOVANNINI

Published: October 30, 2003


IMI VALLEY, Calif., Oct. 28 — The forecourt of Madeline and Edward A. Landry's new house — on 134 acres with a 180-degree view of Rocky Peak State Park — became a command post last weekend for firefighters combatting the Simi Valley inferno raging just north of the Los Angeles County line. With his binoculars, a fire captain was picking out fires on the hills, and planes were bombing them with water. "Most of the time the pilots were hitting their mark," Ms. Landry said on Tuesday, recalling the scene. "There were so many planes in the air, it was like a battle."

Still the fire advanced, jumping the Ronald Reagan Freeway and claiming new ground. The threat early in the week was that it would reach Box Canyon, a long, winding canyon that, like a flue, would have drawn it toward Malibu, 15 miles away. The Landry property was at risk of becoming the blaze's first stop on its way to the Pacific — a trial that would have put fire-resistant design to the test.

The couple, whose house was profiled in this section earlier this month for its germ-fighting design, had planted drought-resistant, fire-retardant vegetation and cleared more than 300 feet in front of their house. And they had deliberately diminished the risk of fire by building with 200,000 pounds of steel, travertine floors and plaster walls. "They wanted low-maintenance materials, but they also insisted on building a fire-resistant house," said David Martin, their architect. "How do you fireproof a house? You don't build it out of anything that can burn, it's that simple."

Capt. John Harber of the Santa Paula Fire Department said the house made a good redoubt. "There's little combustible vegetation here, good access and good water supplies," he said, "and the house is built of noncombustible materials."

Nature here carries risks, and design can be the first line of defense. The Landrys put up such a line, but they can only sigh with relief that their property was passed by, because in a 3,000-degree fire, steel melts and stucco is no defense.

Nonetheless, since 1993 when the devastating Malibu fire consumed 350 houses, more homes in Southern California have been constructed with fire resistance in mind, including steel shutters and roofs, rooftop pools of standing water, special sprinklers, water storage tanks, and pumps with their own generators.

In Southern California, BMW's share territory with bobcats and raccoons in a beautiful, but often treacherous, overlapping of nature and culture. Only 45 minutes by freeway from downtown Los Angeles, the Landrys found thrusting limestone shelves and outcroppings worthy of stagecoach westerns — and the attendant threat of wildfire, which makes eucalyptus trees go up like a torch.

"One of the captains here said that even if the fire broke through the eucalyptus, we'd probably be in good shape," Ms. Landry said.

It is the hope that fire-resistant building works, and the fear that it won't, that keeps architects coming up with solutions for people intent on building along canyon walls.

The architect Edward R. Niles, who has built many houses in the Santa Monica Mountains, said: "You start designing, really, by looking at the land, taking into account the direction of the Santa Ana winds, the topography and the amount and kind of plants." Mr. Niles practiced all of that in his own stainless-steel-sheathed house in the foothills.

"We're planting man-made objects in a fire-based ecological system where the winds carry sumac and other oily plant materials that, once burned, provide the carbon content that fertilizes the next growth," he said. "The key thing is thinning out and structuring the landscape with a choice of noncombustive plant materials and creating a fire clearance of about 200 feet around the house in all directions."

Malibu may have been spared this time, but it wasn't so lucky 10 years ago. The 3,500-square-foot house belonging to Kim and Michael McCarty, which was exposed to a hillside of chaparral, burned to the ground. In the 15-minute evacuation, they and their children had only enough time to fill up a plastic bag with clothes. Mr. McCarty, a restaurateur, credits their vineyards for having saved the guesthouse and his wife's painting studio.

Their house, and those of a half dozen others, were rebuilt by the Malibu architect Doug Rucker. Commissions resulting from fires have been a staple of his practice. "When things are slow, I say I'm between fires," he said. He has impeccable credentials: his house burned in a 1970 fire.

"I sat and watched my own house burn," he said. "It had a lot of overhangs and exposed eaves, and I watched them catch cinders from the brush. You can't have a house capture sparks. It has to be aerodynamically designed so they blow around and past the house and the decks, like a wind tunnel. The eaves have to be plastered."

Although woods may connote a rusticity appropriate for Malibu, Mr. Rucker avoids cladding roofs and exterior walls with wood. He favors stucco. Among the houses he rebuilt in Malibu after the 1993 fire is the Ronald and Sally Munro residence, which is completely covered in metal and roofed with copper. Aluminum wind screens, devised for Florida's hurricanes, fold down at the touch of a button to protect the windows. All combustible materials have been eliminated. Even the handrails are made of glass and metal or wire.

Lightning may not strike twice in the same spot but fires in Southern California do; building and rebuilding are a cycle as inevitable as nature's. The conflagration now raging in San Diego County came within 50 yards of a house in the town of Valley Center that replaced one destroyed several years ago. Kevin Daly, a principal in the Santa Monica firm Daly Genik, designed the new structure for his wife's family, which lost the conventional one-story stucco house they had occupied for decades. The new house is steel-clad and has wall panels made of cement board. But what distinguishes the design are sliding and hinged perforated metal panels that, on a day-to-day basis, act as sun visors and space dividers. If there is a fire, they protect the windows.

"We originally planned an automated system that would pump water from the swimming pool to sprinklers on the roof," Mr. Daly said, "and last Sunday, after the fire, it crossed my mind that it was shortsighted not to have gone ahead with the plans. Now, we'll probably complete the system. The piping is already in place inside the walls."

Each fire prompts local governments to enact regulations for fire-resistant construction. But the Los Angeles architect Barton Myers, who completed a complex of three steel-and-cement clad structures several years ago in Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara, said there is so much pressure from fire-struck owners to rebuild the original house, "that it's hard for local officials to enforce the new codes." Codes for houses in fire zones now require interior sprinklers and emphasize double glazing and reflective glass, which will reduce the amount of heat transmitted to the interior in case of fire. Regulations extend even into the garden: Malibu requires groundcover like star jasmine and forbids combustible plants like eucalyptus, pine and sumac.

In Mr. Myers' own house, all windows have fire shutters, "to cocoon the house," he said. He also added shallow pools of water to the roofs, water being the ultimate noncombustible material. He also keeps oxygen masks in a vault beneath the pool, not far from the wine cellar, "so my wife and I can ride a fire out if we're caught."

In a short story, Raymond Chandler wrote that the Santa Ana winds "come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch."

"On nights like that," he wrote, "every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."

As of Wednesday, the Santa Anas, which fueled the fire threatening the Landry house over the weekend, had died down, but wind coming from the Pacific was blowing the fire in new directions. East of Los Angeles, flames threatened resort communities from Lake Arrowhead east to Big Bear Lake. At least 17 people have died and some 1,800 houses had been lost.

"When we see on television pictures of people who have lost their homes, we see ourselves, because we've been there," Mr. McCarty said. "They've got a long and strange trip ahead of them.`

His wife added, "It took us five years to navigate the insurance companies, and to rebuild. It takes out a chunk of your life."

After the Malibu 1993 fire, the McCartys rented a beach house, and two months later, a storm ripped off the front part of the house. Other houses survived the fire only to collapse in the Northridge earthquake two months later. "According to the Chumash Indians who lived here," Mr. McCarty said, "the humans are in the way of the cycles of nature."