A better way to rebuild after wildfires
Wildfires this summer have torched communities from Greece to Canada to Maui.
“It’s scary. It can cause destruction and loss of life and there’s reasons to be scared of it, but fire is not bad or good, it just is,” says Justin Angle.
As wildfires become a tragically normal part of life in many communities, more people than ever are losing their homes.
“At some point during the day the fire shifted, and that’s when I realized that it was probably gonna threaten my home. And I actually watched it burn down,” says Rodrigo Moraga.
Today, On Point: rethinking how we live and rebuild in combustible landscapes.
Justin Angle, Author of This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat. Associate Professor of Marketing and the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Montana. Co-host of the podcast Fireline, about what wildfire means for the West.
Rodrigo Moraga, Firefighter and fire behavior analyst with Lefthand Fire Protection District in Boulder County, Colorado. He’s currently deployed in Redmond, Oregon near an active fire scene there.
Missy Barnard, Resident of Paradise, California whose home was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Earlier this week, Maui County officials told Hawaiians that the search for victims of the deadly Lahaina, Olinda and Kula fires is essentially complete. They’ve searched 99% of the devastated areas, and do not expect the death toll to rise much higher than the 115 people declared dead so far.
However, a list of missing people still contains almost 390 names.
In addition, the threat of future fires is still urgently real in Hawaii. This weekend, Tanna Swanson was in the middle of an interview with Hawaii News Now, when she was told that fires were burning in the Ka’anaipali Golf Estates — only about two miles from the Lahaina Civic Center.
In addition, the threat of future fires is still urgently real in Hawaii. This weekend, Tanna Swanson was in the middle of an interview with Hawaii News Now, when she was told that fires were burning in the Ka’anaipali Golf Estates – only about two miles from the Lahaina Civic Center.
TANNA SWANSON: So it’s hard to fathom and you find out that, you know, you’re still required to make a mortgage payment even though your house is burned to the ground. And you’ve lost your jobs because your business is gone so —
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: (inaudible)
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: They’re evacuating Ka’anaipali Golf Estates.
SWANSON: I’ve gotta go. I have staff members that are in Ka’anaipali and they need to be evacuated. So I must go and evacuate more staff right now. (RUSTLING) Thank you so much.
CHAKRABARTI: The static noises you just heard there was the sound of producers trying to quickly remove Tanna’s microphone as she hurried away. Well, that fire was contained before it jumped to homes in the neighborhood, but the flames came about 20 feet from houses. Meanwhile, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen says communities will rebuild.
RICHARD BISSEN: It will be a priority list of how we go back. Not everyone will go back all at the same time. We want people to go back to their property. We want people to go back to their land. We know people want to go back to look through what’s there, especially those people whose homes are still standing in the burn area.
CHAKRABARTI: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also confident that communities can be rebuilt. “It takes about six months to a year to clear the debris from an event this size,” a FEMA rep told reporters on Monday. “This will take some time. It has to be done appropriately, safely, culturally, respectfully, and in a dignified way.”
Well, Hawaii is just the latest in a disheartening trend. The number of homes destroyed by wildfires in the western United States has jumped by nearly 250% in the past two decades, according to a recent study. Residents who’ve lost their homes in all those places have had – and will have to – rebuild their houses and their lives. Their communities have had to struggle with how to change the physical infrastructure and emergency management infrastructure of entire cities and towns.
So what changes can they make to create more resilient homes and communities?
Now, we can talk about ideas such as, “Well, they should move away from fire prone areas.” But I’d say that’s a far too easy critique made by people who live far away. Because the reality in the West is that everywhere is fire prone now.
At this moment, state fire and hotspot dashboards show that fires are burning in western Idaho and Montana; northern, central, and southern California; central Arizona and central Utah; western Colorado; eastern, central, and western Washington; and central and southern Oregon.
Well, that is where Rodrigo Moraga is right now. He’s a wildland firefighter with Lefthand Fire Protection District in Boulder County, Colorado. He’s also a fire behavior analyst and he is currently deployed in Redmond, Oregon, dealing with fires there. And he was able to join us today. Rodrigo, welcome to On Point.
RODRIGO MORAGA: Hello.
CHAKRABARTI: So, I mean, can you first just bring us up to speed on the fires that you’ve been deployed to? What’s burning where and what do you expect over the next couple of days?
MORAGA: Well, our team, we are an incident management team, and so our job is to manage larger fires where we have so many more firefighters and equipment and everything that it’s beyond the scope of what the local fire department can handle. And that’s when we come in and take over.
So with that, this particular area that we’re in, just looking at our morning briefing today, we have over 18 major fires. So those are the ones that are being managed again by large federal teams. On top of that are, you know, numerous other fires that are still being — attempted to be controlled at the local level. So, what happened here was just a very large dry lightning storm came across the entire area of Washington and Oregon, and lit literally hundreds of fires. This happens regularly.
MORAGA: But if conditions are right, then we start to get a lot of those little fires to grow and then get out of control.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and conditions are right far more frequently these days. I’m wondering about, I mean, the speed that fire — wildfires can spread is truly awe- and terror-inspiring.
Actually, just a little bit earlier this summer, I was not far from where you are right now, Rodrigo — in the Bend area. And just sort of driving near Bend, Oregon, a camper had let their little campfire get out of control and within 24 hours it had become a 3,500 acre blaze. So what I wonder is, do you — what’s the, like, the weather forecast in the next couple of days in terms of, is there more wind? Is there any rain in the forecast, any relief? Or is there a concern that these fires could spread even faster and farther?
MORAGA: Well, when I got here yesterday it was in the seventies and the wind was blowing the entire day. It’s been — what’s happens is as storms come, you know, out of the Pacific, if they don’t bring the moisture, they typically just push the winds out and that’s what we see right now. They are calling for some moderation of that through this weekend, a little bit of rain is supposed to come in but then it starts to dry up again next week. So, you know, fairly common pattern for this time of year that you get some breaks, but you know, we’re still, we’re still in the, in the, I guess, fire season.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. And fire season seems ever longer, I have to say, as each year goes by. Now, you not only have your professional experience as a fire behavior analyst, but you also have personal experience. Can you tell us what happened to your own home back in 2010?
MORAGA: Yes. So, in 2010 we were — this was in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado. And we had a home there. And there was a fire that started on Labor Day, actually. And we had a very strong wind. We called them the Chinook, similar to the Santa Anas. And so we were getting 40-plus mile an hour winds that day. And we had an ignition. So the fire started and just exploded and began to run across the landscape.
And I was actually operations chief on that fire. So I was, I was managing the, you know, the strategies of — of how to suppress it. But in that time, it had been moving away from my home for the most part. And then at some point I got a report that the fire had jumped the canyon and was now moving what would be towards my home.
So, I realized that, you know, it was threatened and went over when I had a chance and took a look at the, you know, where the fire was to my home. I checked it twice over the — over the afternoon. But then the third time, the fire was just coming right down towards the house.
My house was on a flat piece of land, but there was a huge sloped hill behind me with a lot of forests. So I just watched the fire just come down that hill. And then once it caught the corner of my porch there was nothing more we could do. So I didn’t have any fire engines available to help put it out, unfortunately. So I just watched it burn.
CHAKRABARTI: You watched your house burn down. Wow. How long did that take from, you know, you said you checked it a couple of times after it had jumped the canyon. I mean, how — how fast did the destruction happen?
MORAGA: Well, it was a couple hours from, you know, as I tracked as it moved closer.
MORAGA: But as far as how long it took to burn the house down, honestly, you know, I’d say within 30 minutes it was beyond, you know, two-thirds probably engulfed at that point. So there was no hope of putting it out.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Can you tell me — for people who haven’t experienced having to flee from a fire like that or who also haven’t experienced the actual witnessing of their houses being destroyed, can you tell me like, what — could you feel the heat? Could you feel the wind? Were there embers flying? I mean, what was it — what did you see and feel as you were watching your house burn?
MORAGA: Well, honestly, I was sort of preoccupied doing my job.
MORAGA: There were over 168 homes burning the course of that day. And, you know, it’s amazing that at that time, that was the highest structure loss in our county. And that has been surpassed several times now, unfortunately. So as far as what it looked like, you know, for me, I’m accustomed to it.
MORAGA: I mean, I’m on the fire lines all the time. So, yeah, it’s very hot. And the heat from a structure burning is very intense and more importantly, very toxic. So it’s not — it’s not like when you’re on a forest fire, you know, you watch it from a distance because you don’t want to get too close to anything that’s burning.
The embers — basically, what happened to my house was rolling pine cones and things that came down the hill ahead of the main fire front, but they were all, you know, on fire and then sort of got under the porch and started catching the porch on fire. But then the embers that generated from the house were really significant.
And, you know, you mentioned the, the Lahaina fire and that is where we start to see what we call urban conflagration. So the —
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Right. Well, I’m gonna actually just jump in here really quickly, Rodrigo. Because we have to take a quick break. But the visual that you’ve left us with — with the rolling fire bombs of pinecones is really gonna stay with me for a while. Stick with us because you did rebuild your home after that 2010 Boulder County fire. And so we’re gonna talk more about how to rebuild resilient communities when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re joined by Rodrigo Moraga. He’s in Redmond, Oregon. Usually he’s in Boulder County, Colorado, where he’s a firefighter and fire behavior analyst with Lefthand Fire Protection District. He’s in Oregon right now, assisting wildfire fighting efforts there. He also lost his own home to fire in 2010.
And in a few minutes we’ll be joined also by the author of a new book on how to protect yourself, your home, and your community in the age of heat. But as I said earlier, there are so many communities under threat right now that we have a lot to learn about how people who have suffered through wildfires have rebuilt.
So I just wanna spend another couple of minutes listening to the voice of someone else who lived through a truly devastating western wildfire. Because on November 8, 2018, Paradise, California, as you might remember, was almost entirely destroyed by what was called the Camp Fire. That fire killed 85 people. Well, Missy Barnard was a nurse. She was at work at the hospital that day when the flames came burning down.
MISSY BARNARD: And so we decided we had to evacuate the patients immediately, like, in our own cars. We didn’t have time to wait for ambulances or anything like that. And so I grabbed my car and I put a patient in and I drove them through darkness and smoke and mayhem to get out of Paradise.
CHAKRABARTI: Missy was able to be reunited with her family later that afternoon. As for her home, she didn’t know what happened until a couple of weeks later. Most people still weren’t allowed back into what was left of Paradise.
BARNARD: A friend of mine who was in law enforcement actually came to the property to take pictures because people were not sure. And the way that fire spun around, with these fire-nados, some people’s houses didn’t burn. And, you know, we assumed that they did, but every once in a while someone found out that it hadn’t. And so a buddy of ours had sent us a picture of the ash that was our block.
CHAKRABARTI: It was also a picture that contained the ash that was her home because her house was gone, which Missy says is hardly a surprise. They had barely done anything to fire-harden it.
BARNARD: Our house was kind of a typical rural California ranch built in the seventies. Wooden construction. Above the garage was this patio that was covered with all these wooden pillars. It was this cool porch area. We had all of our firewood stacked up against the house, the wood — the firewood on a wood deck next to a wood house. But the structure itself, you know, we had a lot of plants directly right next to it and growing over it, with a lot of things leaning up against the house. Flammable things like firewood.
CHAKRABARTI: I really feel for Missy, because as she said, her house was a typical rural California ranch. People live this way and have been living this way for decades and decades. Wooden decks. Wood to fire your stoves or your fireplaces. It was all just stored in the same place. That was normal.
Now, Missy says that after the fire, leaving Paradise just wasn’t an option because her family, her community, all lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. So she rebuilt. But this time without the wooden deck and stacks of firewood.
BARNARD: Our house is metal construction. So all the studs are steel. We have no gutters. Gutters turns out to be a big thing because they collect leaves and pine trees, and they get really dry and then that stuff catches on fire.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, there’s more to Missy’s story and how she rebuilt and how the community of Paradise faced the challenges of rebuilding. We’re gonna hear more from Missy a little later in the show.
But I wanna now bring Justin Angle into the conversation. He’s an associate professor of marketing at the Poe Family — excuse me — and the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Montana. He’s co-host of a podcast called Fireline and co-author of a new book called This Is Wildfire, How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat. Professor Angle, welcome to On Point.
JUSTIN ANGLE: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So what got a marketing professor interested in thinking about resilience in the age of wildfires?
ANGLE: Yeah, I moved to Missoula, Montana in 2012 and had not lived in a fire prone land before and quickly became aware that this is not only an area where wildfire plays a major role in the landscape, but it also plays a major role in the culture of the community.
We have great fire science happening here. We have great firefighting. The smoke jumper training center is here, smoke jumper base is here, a national fire lab is here. And so many of the people I was meeting in my new community were working kind of at the tip of the spear in the wildfire space. And I didn’t really understand the work they were doing — or wildfire in general — and just started getting more and more interested in it.
And it occurred to me that the public did not have much of an understanding of how to make sense of what was happening on the fire line. You know, we’d get reports from, you know, incident response teams and read what was happening in the media. And it’s just hard to make sense of the vocabulary. It’s hard to understand what our role is as members of a community.
And so just set out on this long journey to try to better understand fire. It led to a podcast project called Fireline, as you mentioned, and then it led to this book opportunity. So I just sort of, stumbled into it out of a desire to just understand how I could play a role myself in trying to be a part of solutions to this wildfire crisis.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Actually, what I really appreciate about your journey into becoming something of a fire expert is that it came from a place of thinking about how much you didn’t understand in the community — which I think many people who even though they’ve been living year after year now in the West with a threat of fire, that’s an authentic feeling that they might have, too.
Now I’m gonna bring Rodrigo back in here in just a second. But Professor Angle, let me ask you: After you started immersing yourself in this deeper understanding of wildfire and how it changes lives and communities, did you — was there, was there a moment or an instant where maybe you came home one day and you were like looking at your house and for the first time you thought, “Oh, is this a fire ready home?” Did you reassess your own physical living circumstances?
ANGLE: Absolutely. And I continue to reassess on a daily basis and look at my home and think about all the things I need to do to really make it as fire resilient as it can be. I mean, my home is on the northern part of Missoula, an area called the Rattlesnake Valley, and it is just a large swath of densely wooded open space to the north of our house. So if a fire comes from the north, you know, my house and others in my neighborhood are kind of the first stop on that train.
So, yeah, I think about this every day and I’ve been trying to chip away at it. And, you know, a lot of the work we’ll talk about in the coming minutes here, the stuff that I’m trying to get my head around doing myself and my own home.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Okay. So what I’d like to do, gentlemen, is kind of start at the individual level with creating resilient individual homes and then we’ll sort of zoom out stage by stage into the neighborhood stage, the community stage and then even more broadly than that, when we really get into planning and zoning and emergency management.
So, Rodrigo, let’s start, again, with just individual homes or buildings, right? It’s not just homes that get destroyed. Is every single part of a home that has not been fire hardened vulnerable to, not just burning, but accelerating a burn through a home due to wildfire?
MORAGA: Yes. I mean, the fire typically — you know, some people tend to imagine these walls of flame that come across and burn homes down but that isn’t the case. The primary mechanism of how homes burn down is embers, spots, right? We call them spotting. But embers that come off of the — whatever’s burning ahead of the fire.
And embers have a way of finding the weakest link in your home. And that could be, as was mentioned before, a gutter that has pine needles in it. A wood pile that’s up against your home. But it’s also things that are less obvious. A laundry vent where your heater vents out is a hole into your home. Eaves that we have by design in order to have our houses, you know, vent and dry. Well, those eaves, when you imagine wind pushing towards them, those embers are gonna get pushed into your attic, into your, you know, any sort of crawl space, et cetera, and the fire will start to, you know, find something it can burn in there. So we see a lot of homes actually burn inside out.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. So roofs, eaves, gutters, walls, decks — as we’ve been talking about. Even flammable materials in surrounding gardens or lands or lawns. I mean and the other thing is just the basic material that so many homes in the West are built with because forests, you know, were plentiful back then. So a lot is just built with wood, right, Rodrigo?
MORAGA: Yes. That’s, that is the — you know, wood is the primary material for construction. It’s the easiest to manufacture. It’s cheapest relative to other materials that we could use. And so, you know, for a long time that has been what people have used. And so that’s part of the challenge.
You know, I’ve been — I’m also a consultant or have been for years. And so, you know, going to neighborhoods and identifying — and I know we’re gonna talk about neighborhoods — but you know, the construction type. The older, the area is, the more flammable it typically is.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Okay. Well Justin Angle, when someone — let’s imagine someone’s listening to this show and then steps outside their home to sort of look around — a home that has not been burnt down, right? Thankfully. Where should they first look to A: assess the resilience of their home and B: you know, for places that they ought to change, improve, modify? Where would you look?
ANGLE: I would look first at the things that you can do most quickly and with the least amount of effort. So we’ve mentioned gutters. Thinking about your gutters, making sure they’re clean of debris. Getting on your roof, making sure the roof is as clean of debris as possible. Looking at the ground within five feet of the home, is there any vegetation touching the home? Do you have anything flammable stored up against the home or underneath your deck that you can move?
Do you have a vehicle with — or a power tool with a gas engine anywhere near the house? Or even a gas can anywhere near the house? So stuff that’s sort of easy to address in a short period of time is where I would start. And then as you’re looking —
CHAKRABARTI: Wait. Can I just jump in here, Justin, for a second? Cars. Everyone has a — I mean, like, if you’ve got a garage, you’ve got a car in it, probably, right? And unless it’s an electric vehicle, that means that there’s a large flammable source right in the house. I mean, are you really — are we really living in an age where we’re suggesting people park their cars outside of their garages or at least five to 10 feet away from their homes?
ANGLE: No, not necessarily suggesting that.
ANGLE: But if you do have a closed garage, then making sure that that structure is as resilient to wildfire as it can be.
CHAKRABARTI: I gotcha. Okay.
ANGLE: Certainly though, if a fire is imminent, if it’s in the area, you know, getting that car — you know, if you’ve evacuated in your car, that’s another thing. But getting that car, you know, distant from the property is probably something to consider.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I’m gonna come back to you in just a second. But Rodrigo, when Justin mentioned that five foot sort of boundary around a home and trying to eliminate as much flammable material from it as possible, I mean, are we talking about kind of just you want to get down to essentially kind of a rock or completely inflammable surface around your house?
MORAGA: Ideally, yes. We’re talking about hardscaping as it’s called. Picture a skirt, if you will, around your home of unburnable material and typically rock is what’s recommended. We used to recommend wood chips and mulch. But those are now proving to be just as flammable as everything else.
And so you basically just wanna make a border around your home with the idea that if those embers land there, they’re not going to catch fire. They’re just gonna burn out because there’s no fuel for them. So yes, that is — that is the intent. The challenge though — you know, what’s been mentioned is typical of the more rural areas, mountain areas like where I used to live and it sounds like where Justin lives. But you know, the last several major fires we’ve seen that have been most destructive have actually been in what we would consider suburban areas.
MORAGA: And so not people — not areas where people even think about wildfire. And what we’ve identified from some of the losses is that, you know, even your fence now is something you need to think about. You have to imagine a wooden fence as a fuse that basically leads right up to your house. Because most people have fences that surround their home and touch their home on either side. And if that’s a wood fence, then it is basically taking the fire from that point in and then against your home.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. So Justin, then with that in mind, continue on in terms of where you would look. Now, Rodrigo is — actually, very rightfully, this is his expertise shining through — talking about suburban areas which have suffered dramatically. Where else would you look? We’re talking about fences now. Are there other things that are quickly — are relatively easy to to harden, Justin?
ANGLE: Well, there’s, there’s cer — you certainly have to go around your home and start making a list. If you have a wooden roof, as many homes in the West do, that is a giant surface area vulnerable to a floating ember and an ignition. And that is something that you should prioritize for fixing. It’s an expensive investment. There are grant programs available and you should research the availability of that grant funding in your locality. Also insert that, I think there’s a need for public investment in this type of thing. Because there’s over a million homes in the West with wooden — with wooden roofs.
Things like the fences. Things like wooden decks. The vegetation around your house. We mentioned that sort of, you know, hardscaping the immediate area, but you gotta think about the trees further out, the vegetation further out. How densely collected is it? How can it transport fire? I think the fence and fuse metaphor is a great way to think about it. That same effect can occur in a canopy of trees around your home. If there’s a tree that — whose canopy kind of overhangs your house, be thinking about trimming that back. The idea —
CHAKRABARTI: Does it even need to overhang? Because asking for a friend, aka, my own family that lives in Oregon. (LAUGHS)
ANGLE: (LAUGHS) Sure.
CHAKRABARTI: There’s no trees that overhang — oh gosh, I’m running out of time for this segment but — there’s no branches that overhang, but the closest trees are within 10 feet. And they’re big.
ANGLE: Yeah. That’s something to be thinking about. And how connected are those trees to other vegetation?
CHAKRABARTI: Very! I mean, that is the West, isn’t it?
CHAKRABARTI: Gotta take a quick break. We’ll talk a lot more about building resilient homes and communities when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about fire and fire resilience in the age of a near year-round fire season in the western United States. And I’m joined by Justin Angle. He is author of This Is Wildfire, How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat. He’s with us from Missoula, Montana.
And Rodrigo Moraga is also with us. He’s a firefighter and fire behavior analyst with Lefthand Fire Protection District in Boulder County, Colorado. Today, he’s in Redmond, Oregon assisting fire suppression and fighting efforts there.
Now, a little earlier in the show we heard from Missy Barnard who lives in Paradise, California, and yes, in 2018 it is that Paradise that nearly — that basically burnt to the ground and killed 85 people. Missy had told us a little bit about how she rebuilt her home and made it a more fire hardened structure. So let’s hear a little bit more about how she did that.
Her new house is designed in the style of a Quonset hut. Those are structures that were first built in World War II as a low cost way to build housing or storage. The structure looks like an elongated arch of corrugated metal, kind of like a giant soup can on its side.
BARNARD: With the curve shaped roof, even if there were flying embers — which was a big factor in the Camp Fire, embers would fall on people’s houses and then sit there and, and smolder. It would slide off of this very thick metal roof.
CHAKRABARTI: Missy also tells us that the community of Paradise is rebuilding together. There’s now an early warning siren system and neighborhood Facebook groups to update each other in real time about fire risks.
BARNARD: Believe it or not, as much as sometimes we think social media, particularly Facebook, you know, can sow a lot of hatred and problems. That was the best way for people to communicate with each other during the actual fire, of “Where are my friends? Where are you? Where are we going?”
And then after the fire, there were people giving away — There were so many resources of free food and gas cards and all of these things that I learned through Facebook and that a lot of people who were not on social media didn’t know about. So social media is important during disasters. It’s a great — it’s the best way to communicate how people can get help.
CHAKRABARTI: So fire hardened individual homes and reliable and trustworthy information infrastructure. Well, Missy also says that Paradise is planning to improve its roadways to avoid a repeat of the disastrous evacuation.
BARNARD: Some people just said, “Screw it,” and went off the side of the road and hit mailboxes and didn’t care. Some people sat in traffic and died. Some people had to get out of their cars and run because their car was on fire. So the town definitely looked at that as a whole and are working on expanding the roadways themselves to make them wider in a couple of spots and actually putting through — I know of at least one roadway in a part of town where that really needs a connecting route. So yeah, that was looked at right after the fire of, of what can we do so that, that, that traffic jam never happens again.
CHAKRABARTI: So redesigning entire communities there. Now the truth is the population of Paradise is still only about one third of what it was before the 2018 fire. But nevertheless, Missy says, slowly but surely, Paradise is coming back to life.
BARNARD: There are people moving here from all over the country because they wanna live outside of the city where there’s clean air, clean water, where it’s safe. And we’re being part of something that’s growing. And that’s really exciting. And the little league is killing it and the schools are filling up. And so the demographic has changed here and it’s a budding town. And so that’s a beautiful recovery story of this phoenix rising from the ashes in Paradise, California.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Missy Barnard in Paradise, California. Well, Rodrigo Moraga, you heard Missy’s story there. Quonset style home. All metal. Definitely all metal roof. What were the major changes that you made to your home after you lost it in 2010?
MORAGA: Well, we first, we had already looked at moving into town because of just the logistics of having a young son at that time and going up and down this canyon road that, I once counted, had over 75 turns in it to my home. So, you know, we were gonna kind of come off the hill anyway as it were, and we moved into the town proper.
But we still built as if we were living in the forest. My home has what’s called aerated concrete block. It’s a material that, that’s similar to a pumice. It’s incredibly light but it’s also incredibly fire resistant, and you can use it as exterior walls. So there’s no wood involved in that. It’s just this concrete block.
And then our floors are raw concrete, poured concrete, and then we have interior walls as well that are raw concrete. We do have some stick frame, you know, I from one room to another. You still need that to, to make — hang doors, et cetera. But for the most part, the home is very, very fire resistant.
CHAKRABARTI: Rodrigo, may I ask maybe I’m imagining the wrong thing, but it almost sounds like you’re living in a concrete bunker. Does it look like that inside the house?
MORAGA: No, not at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. (LAUGHS)
MORAGA: It’s — we get a lot of compliments on our home. It’s a beautiful, very modern home based off of some Mexican architecture.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, I ask that not to be entirely facetious, but in order to sort of get us to ask, like — people wanna love living where they live, right? They wanna feel comfortable and good and beautiful inside their home. So it sounds like what you’re saying, that even with making drastic changes to how your home is constructed to make it fireproof, you don’t act — you don’t at all have to, you know, give up that sense that this is my space. It’s beautiful. It feels like living almost anywhere else except it’s safer from fire.
MORAGA: Right. Exactly. Yes. I mean, without going into a whole lot of detail, the interior finish of the concrete exterior is a clay. And so it actually has a very warm feeling to it.
MORAGA: It’s not, you know, it’s not like living in a bunker, as I said. (LAUGHS) But it’s actually — it’s actually a very beautiful home. And it changed my attitude because I am, you know, my background is as a forester and I love wood. And I would, you know, wanted that typical log cabin. You know, if I had the dream, it would’ve been, you know, big, massive timbers, all this stuff. And my wife, she’s an artist and just has a great eye for architecture and was like, “Trust me, we can make this and make it look beautiful.” And it absolutely is. So yeah, for the people listening, you don’t have to turn your — you don’t have to turn it into some ugly cell block.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
MORAGA: There are a lot of materials out there and they’re materials that have been used around the world for years. That’s probably, you know, the thing that struck me the most is aerated — it’s actually called aerated, autoclaved concrete. And if you were to look that up, you would find out that they’ve been using it for a very long time in the world. It’s just not very well known here in the U.S.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And just quickly, Rodrigo, this is for new construction. Are there similar materials available for like, retrofit of existing structures?
MORAGA: That is a bit of a challenge. It has been mentioned a few times, changing your roof type is something that is, you know, fairly, I wouldn’t say easy, but it’s doable.
MORAGA: You know, trying to change your walls from what they are to something new is a bit more difficult. Stucco is a possibility. But not all stucco is the same and without boring the audience, you know, there is a vast difference in the types of stucco and how it is applied as to whether or not it’s just sort of, you know, an exterior finish for aesthetics versus actually being quite a fire resistant material.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. Well, Justin Angle, let me turn back to you because I’m a little late in my desire to zoom out to higher levels of analysis here. (LAUGHS) Because you know, Rodrigo had mentioned earlier that we’re seeing some of the worst losses in suburban neighborhoods now. And then we heard Missy say, well, as Paradise is rebuilding, it’s thinking about even its street layout to be sure people can get out quickly.
It sounds like this sort of overall neighborhood and town planning is a really key part of making existing locations more resilient and then also new developments that go up. Do you think there’s adequate planning right now for all the new places that are being constructed in the western United States to make them fire hardened?
ANGLE: I think there’s a range. I think there’s some communities, Boulder County in particular, that are doing a wonderful job of trying to kind of retrofit and redesign the community to the extent that’s possible. You know, we’ve talked a lot about things that the individual can do. There are limits to what any individual can do, both in terms of, you know, the effort it takes, but also the expense. Like putting on a new roof is expensive.
And one of the other pieces of this is this defensible space we’re talking about often includes your neighbor’s house or maybe more than one house. And so these sorts of home hardening efforts need to be adopted at the community level, at the neighborhood level. Because your home is only safe to the extent that your neighbor’s home is safe. Once your — if your neighbor’s home catches fire, then that becomes a tremendous risk to your home, no matter how hardened it is.
So having these sorts of practices adopted at the community level — and I think they need to be built into zoning and codes and things like that. And we’re probably — I hope to see more sort of nuance in the insurance and mortgage industries because just as State Farm has done in California, pulling out of a market entirely is not really a nuanced way to manage the problem. We could incentivize, you know, personal and public investment in these sorts of practices to sort of create more systemic change.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, quarterly reports don’t really tolerate nuance, do they, when it comes to profit and loss? (LAUGHS)
ANGLE: (LAUGHS) They don’t.
CHAKRABARTI: But you’re saying something really, really important. Because I know a lot of people listening to this who aren’t living in the western United States, one of their natural responses is, well, you know, Missy said earlier, people are moving back to Paradise because it’s a beautiful place in the woods and they wanna be part of that. Well, maybe we shouldn’t be building in fire prone areas. I hear that all the time.
Let’s just accept for a moment that that’s not realistic either — that growth in these states is going to continue. But I do wonder, I mean, we have reached the point, haven’t we? Where local and state officials need to sort of build the courage to say, well, if you’re gonna build a development over there, your houses have to be more than, you know, five feet from the property line. You’re gonna have to actually tolerate having fewer homes in the development so that these places can be farther apart. The materials will have to be such and such, like you said, or the kind of pumice-like concrete that Rodrigo is talking about. You have to plan the community so that rapid evacuation can can happen.
You said you hope these things happen, Justin. Are there not really — are you not really seeing the kind of changes that we would need in zoning requirements to make future communities more resilient? And then, Rodrigo, I’m gonna wanna hear from you on this, too.
ANGLE: I think we are seeing examples of it. I think one of the problems is structural though, in that there is a moral hazard often if you’re looking at a municipal administrator. That person, you know, local government will bear the benefit or will experience the benefit of the property taxes that that new development generates. But they don’t bear the cost of the fire suppression.
That’s often borne out by, you know, national federal taxpayers because it’s often the Forest Service and other agencies, but often it’s not the municipality that bears the majority of that cost. So there is this kind of disconnect and a perverse incentive to approve development even though it might be risky development.
We’re seeing pockets of thoughtful development. I mentioned Boulder County. There’s other communities in the West that are taking this very seriously and doing great work. But it’s sort of in isolated pockets. And I think, you know, the increase of events that we’re seeing across the West and in Lahaina and other places are raising the salience of this issue and are sort of getting communities to think about it more and more proactively.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm. I wanna be optimistic about this, but you know, right now as we’re having this conversation about fire, there’s yet another hurricane smashing Florida. And I’m not sure that we’ve seen in, you know, in many, many years, adequate changes in terms of hurricane preparedness in hurricane prone states, even though we know that they’re gonna get hit eventually and again and again. So, Rodrigo, I mean, what would you like to see in terms of changes, broader changes in community planning, in zoning, and do you think it’s possible?
MORAGA: I do think it’s possible. The challenge is always to what extent? Because there is an expense that comes with this. And, you know, if you’re a developer and you’re looking to build a new subdivision, that is the opportunity to build the, you know, the perfect model of how it should look. But, you know, again, they need to make a profit. And so how much are they willing to put into this?
Things like roads, you know, that was mentioned. Evacuation planning is probably the most important element these days. And I say that because fires — not all, obviously, but many of these destructive extreme fire events that we’re seeing — really don’t allow for any type of suppression until much later on. And so the primary focus is life safety. And that comes down to evacuation planning. And again, places that have already been built are sort of — you know, they’ve got what they’ve got. And putting in a new road to an existing developed area is actually very challenging, right?
MORAGA: Because you’re more than likely going through another property, you know, something that’s already owned. But going forward, I think, one is that zoning codes as we mentioned a few times, you know, Boulder County, we actually do have some very progressive zoning codes going on. But a lot of the country, you know, different states are very different about how much they’re willing to push onto the citizens.
MORAGA: And so that’s really where it comes down to is you can only control your property.
CHAKRABARTI: Gotcha. Well, you know what? It seems to me that in the age of almost constant wildfire threat, having a new community that is fire hardened and fire resilient might actually be a selling point for developers looking for buyers in those communities.
But Rodrigo Moraga, firefighter and fire behavior analyst with Lefthand Fire Protection District in Boulder County, Colorado with us today from Oregon. Thank you so much. And Justin Angle, co-author of This is Wildfire. Thank you, too.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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