RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: We are in the middle of wildfire season here in California — there are more than a dozen currently burning across the state. And so we’re dedicating two episodes to this issue. Last week we explored the work of Jack Cohen. He’s a Forest Service scientist who, back in the 1980s, started to argue that instead of fighting fires, we should focus more energy on building homes that are better designed to withstand fire. He helped to define and popularize the idea of “defensible space”, which is the buffer you should create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, and other flammable materials that surround it. This week we’re going to spend time in one community, in southern california, which is frequently threatened by fire and is grappling with what it means to rebuild over and over again.
RM: When Daryl Cagle moved to Montecito, California as a kid in 1964, it was a quiet town. The kind of place where his single mother, who worked as a school teacher, could buy a house.
DC: Montecito used to be a very normal neighborhood. Normal people with normal jobs could afford affordable houses there.
RM: Montecito has changed a lot since then. It’s now famously home to Rob Lowe and Oprah; and not so many single mothers and school teachers.
DC: The housing prices have gone crazy and the demographics of town are just oddly extreme, but it’s a lovely place, and it’s where I grew up, and it’s very comforting to be in a place that is so familiar.
SC: Nestled between the mountains and the Pacific, right next to Santa Barbara, Montecito is very charming, and very geographically isolated. I can see why so many celebrities wanna live there.
RM: That’s Susie Cagle, the reporter for our story this week, and Daryl’s daughter.
SC: The landscape is this mix of desert and coast, with soaring hills, natural hot springs, and cool dewy mornings. The hillsides are covered with evergreen chaparral, a plant community characterized by scrubby brush. And the neighborhoods are lined with fragrant eucalyptus.
RM: But Montecito’s beautiful landscape is also what makes the community especially vulnerable to wildfire. The native chaparral covering the hills is drought and relatively fire resistant for the first 20 years or so of its life, but then it dries out into rich fire fuel.
SC: Then there’s the invasive eucalyptus trees: their shaggy bark and flammable oils make them burst into fireballs as they heat up during a wildfire. They look like matchsticks when they catch, and pieces of their bark fly off to start other blazes nearby. The slender canyons that sit below the hilltops of Montecito are cozy little spaces where that fire can easily take hold.
RM: Which it does, when the the town’s so-called “sundowner winds” blow hot dry air from the desert, up and over the mountains, and through the canyons. The region endures a major fire once every 10 years or so.
SC: The year my dad and grandmother moved to Montecito, in 1964, a wildfire called the Coyote Fire scorched 67,000 acres just north of them. It burned 106 homes and killed one firefighter. My dad says he doesn’t remember it.
RM: For this landscape, fire is predictable and it is inevitable. And coupled with a multi-year drought, it is becoming unmanageable.
DC: We had no idea that fires were going to increase in size and frequency like they have. Maybe it’s like the frog in the pot slowly coming to a boil. It’s just uh, getting worse slowly.
SC: For decades, my dad and grandmother and the other residents of Montecito exhibited a kind of “stubborn pioneer streak” that characterizes a lot of Californians. After fires, they’d rebuild and continue with their lives. My grandmother had been driven from her home in Texas by the drought in the ‘30s that sent so many dust bowl refugees fleeing for a better life. So what was a little fire?
RM: But that kind of optimism is getting harder to sustain as fires become more frequent and more intense, and as communities are forced to reckon with rebuilding again and again and again.
Rob Hazard: We’re re-evaluating, hey, how are we going to deal with this?
SC: Rob Hazard is the deputy fire marshal for Santa Barbara County, and a fifth generation Santa Barbara resident.
RH: We are entering a new time when because of the weather and the impacts of climate change and long term extended drought that fires have reached a new level of intensity that’s causing us to have to change our tactics, our strategies. I mean, we’re stretched to the limit; all of our resources.
SC: Thirteen years after my dad arrived in Montecito, he and my grandmother faced their first close call with wildfire, The Sycamore Canyon Fire. It was July 26, 1977. A young man flew his box kite into a power line on a warm summer evening, causing a spark which turned into a fire. The sundowner winds pushed the growing blaze into my dad and grandmother’s dense neighborhood, which had only just been built in the early 60s. They evacuated.
DC: We got a car full of quickly gathered mementos and the clothes on our back, and we drove out, and you know next morning came back and the house was gone.
SC: The house had burned completely, from the roof down to the foundation.
DC: But the foundation was fine. In fact, the chimney was left standing and the chimney was fine.
SC: 195 houses burned in the fire. Many of them, like my dad’s, had roofs made of wood shingles, with cozy air gaps in between, perfect for flying embers to catch.
DC: Like kindling on top of houses.
SC: The county fire marshal at the time reported watching wood shingles lift off one burning house, fly through the air, and land on another house with a wood shingle roof. He called it “a wood roof conflagration.”
SC: And was there ever any question grandmother wanted to rebuild or was it just a given?
DC: Well, she had fire insurance and rebuilding the house was covered and she had a job working for the schools in town. I don’t I don’t think there was much question about it.
RM: If there’s an upside to destructive wildfires, it’s that they give a community the chance for a design “do over.” Towns have a rare opportunity to modify the landscape and rebuild houses in ways that will make them more resistant to disasters in the future.
SC: Through the 50s and 60s, Montecito made a handful of changes to prepare for future fires. The forest service tore up some of the flammable chaparral with bulldozers and doused it with herbicide, until fears over toxic chemicals and a growing environmental movement scrapped the project in the ‘70s.
RM: In especially fire-prone neighborhoods, the county began requiring people to build their houses with fire-resistant roofs and walls, and with wide areas of clear, open space around them, what’s known as “defensible space.”
SC: Each new disaster inspires a new edit. When my grandmother rebuilt she changed the design of their house. Those nightmarish wood roofs were now banned, so she replaced hers with concrete, and paved over the tiny surrounding yard. They did what they could to make their space more defensible.
RM: But there can be limits to the effectiveness of “defensible space.” That’s especially true in a dense community where people have small lots.
DC: We have neighbors, and neighbors have rights, and neighbors want trees, and you can only clear brush from your own land.
SC: So even if you’re diligent about keeping your land carefully maintained, your neighbor might have a propane BBQ, or a tall stand of lovely eucalyptus trees. And their house could catch your house on fire.
RM: In Montecito, preventing fires can often prove more controversial than rebuilding after them. Prescribed fires set and managed by firefighters were once considered an effective way to burn off fuel, but in coastal California, with its parched chaparral, they’re hardly done anymore. The so-called “controlled” fires can easily grow out of control and destroy valuable ecosystems and neighborhoods.
SC: And ridge-top fire breaks are expensive to maintain, and ugly. These big stretches of cleared land are meant to make space for fire engines, hoses and hand-tools. They provide firefighters with ready access to the front. But residents of affluent communities don’t like to see big scars across the lush mountainsides, even when it’s for their own protection.
RM: So Rob Hazard and other county firefighters are tasked with a losing battle, fighting nature and civilization without control over either one.
RH: A lot of our discussions revolve around, well, community planning. That’s really where we need to be tackling this. We need to plan our communities better. We need to build our houses more durable and resilient and resistant to combustion. We need to stop building in the wildlands; but the sad truth is is that we’ve already built out our communities.
SC: And we’re only adding to them. As those communities grow and spread inland, they’ve gotten closer to what used to be considered “wilderness”, now what’s called the “wildland urban interface.” Researchers expect that a million new houses will be built in those high fire hazard areas of California in the coming decades.
RH: As urban populations have moved closer to the wildlands we get a whole new generation of people who aren’t familiar with the risks inherent with living next to the wildlands in Southern California; actually statewide now. The reality is there really isn’t a wilderness in Southern California, anywhere in the state of California. We can have a fire start in a wilderness area and be at the back door of a major metropolitan area in four or five hours.
RM: At the same time communities are encroaching on what used to be wildlands, climate change is making wildfires more frequent and intense. It’s a dangerous mix, but the way we live through fire has stayed remarkably the same. When a community burns, local authorities rush to issue new building permits.
SC: And with California in the grips of a housing crisis that has only intensified since the 1970s, it can seem crazier not to rebuild houses, even though the threat of fire is now year-round. There is no fire season anymore.
SC: My grandmother died in 1999, and my dad moved into the Montecito house. In 2008, thirty-one years after the Sycamore Canyon fire, the house was threatened once again. This fire, called the Tea Fire, was eerily similar to the fire that had burned their house down all those years ago. .
DARYL: It swooped in really fast and it took out a similar number of houses and it was quite nearby and very scary.
SUSIE: It was like a hundred yards nearby [LAUGH]
DARYL: Well, It burned a whole bunch of houses on the next street a block over. The smoke was swirling in and there were embers in the air and we should have gotten out earlier.
SC: The Tea Fire destroyed 210 homes in my dad’s neighborhood. His house survived and despite the near miss, again he chose to stay. The constant threat had made him somewhat blase, like a lot of people in the community. When another fire sparked in the Santa Barbara hills just six months later, the Jesusita Fire, he didn’t worry at all. Sure, you could see flames in the hills from his house, but they were two canyons over, and everything that could burn between him and the fire had already burned anyway.
RM: But just this past year something happened that made people feel a new sense of danger. First, there was another fire. Until very recently, the largest in California history.
NEWSREEL: Thousands of firefighters in SoCal are racing against the clock to prevent a massive wildfire from spreading into nearby neighborhoods.
RM: The Thomas Fire burned through nearly a thousand homes in cities to the south before the wind moved it north into Montecito.
NEWSREEL: Overnight in the foothills residents watched the blaze in awe and horror.
SC: On the morning of December 16, 2017 the fire was raging five blocks away from my dad’s house. It got so close that at one point, the satellite heat map showed the fire perimeter completely covering his house. It looked like it was gone.
DC: And I had never seen all of the mountains behind us burned like that. They were they were completely denuded. It looked like desert mountains that don’t have anything growing on them. A shocking thing to see for so large an area, a whole mountain range.
RM: The Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres and caused more than 2 billion in damages. It eventually burned into the still-fresh scars from other recent fires. And without chaparral and other fuel to keep going, it simply put itself out.
SC: Only three houses were destroyed in Montecito. People in the town thought they’d been spared. But then the rain came.
RM: In the early morning of January 9th, 2018 a storm pummeled Santa Barbara; half an inch of rain fell on the mountains above Montecito in just five minutes.
SC: ER doctor Steve Mills was up listening to the storm. He and his family had moved to Montecito just a few years before.
STEVE MILLS: That night everyone went to sleep and I couldn’t. It was one of these things where you’re in that sort of half awake half asleep state. And I heard the thunder, what I thought was thunder. And I thought, “Gosh that’s a weird thunder to last for 30 seconds. I mean what thunder rumbles that long?” And then my brain finally turned on enough that I leapt out of bed and, “OK I’m just going to make sure everybody is OK.” and then as I walk by, I look outside, and there’s mud at the door.
SC: The house had been enveloped in a river of mud, rocks, and trees.
SM: There was a there was a dead body right in front of our house. There was a number of them washed downstream into our area. And it was frightening.
RM: This debris flow, or what some people mistakenly call a mudslide, was the direct result of the Thomas fire that had burned the mountains bare just weeks before. And it all goes back to chaparral.
SC:. After the fire, the waxy substance that coats the chaparral leaves was left as a film across the scorched soil. That oily coating made the ground impervious to water, so rain slipped across it instead of soaking in.
RM: And as the rain skimmed across the soil, there was no chaparral to restrain it. The Thomas fire had devoured all the plants. Here’s Rob Hazard again.
RH: And what that does, it completely strips the hillside of anything that can hold back soil, rock, debris to such an extent that you know any amount of rainfall is going to result in some kind of debris flow. And then unfortunately, of course we know what happened, we had rainfall intensity that hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years.
RM: In this landscape, flood is essentially the second stage of fire. Rain came rushing down the hills into the town. As it flowed, the water carried mud, trees, and rocks off the steep hills.
NEWSREEL: Even seasoned rescue teams are shocked by the magnitude of the destruction: We don’t see this. I mean it is complete devastation. Multiple multiple homes completely destroyed.
RM: Boulders the size of small houses floated down several dense rivers of mud more than 15 feet deep. Some of the debris flows reached speeds close to 30 miles per hour.
SC: Boulders smashed into one house so violently that the gas main exploded. On whole residential blocks, there weren’t houses to dig out under the mud — the houses were simply gone.
NEWSREEL: Some homes were wiped off their foundations and vanished, others torn into piles of wood and steel.
SC: My dad was fine, but many of his neighbors were not. More than 400 homes were damaged or destroyed, about a tenth of the whole town. Hundreds of people had to be rescued by helicopter. 23 were killed. Two were never found.
RM: Steve Mills and his family were lucky, by some measures. A few of their neighbors in their low-lying part of Montecito’s flatlands ended up with boulders in their bedrooms.
SC: The Mills house is currently uninhabitable, and they’re living in a rental while they make repairs to the property. They had 65 truckloads of mud and debris removed from their yard before they could even begin removing the mud and debris from under their home.
RM: Some of the people whose homes were destroyed have moved away, and Steve’s wife would like to do that too,
SM: She saw this 20 foot mud dam and it was frightening. And that sort of, that leaves you marked, your mind to a certain degree. So she really doesn’t want to live here.
RM: But for now they’re in a protracted battle with their insurance company, and they can’t fix their house until that’s resolved. So they have to stay.
RM: Debris flows are technically floods but since they’re caused by fire, California law mandates that they are covered by fire insurance, which everyone in Montecito has. It’s the financial infrastructure that takes over when physical infrastructure fails. More than government, it’s insurance companies that seem to make the decisions about where and how people can live in California. Insurance companies complain that they’re subsidizing poor, risky decisions, but for the most part, they don’t stop insuring people. They just increase prices, making California an even more exclusive, expensive place to live for everyone.
SC: The housing market has cooled somewhat, but Montecito as a whole remains desirable. If anything, the value of every property that wasn’t destroyed by fire or flood in the last year has only gone up.
RM: With the chaparral burnt out of the hills, the whole risk paradigm in Montecito has changed, as have the engineering challenges. The threat of fire is another 20 years off. The immediate concern now is when the next rain might come and bury the town in mud again.
RH: I mean to have that amount of intensity that follows up a fire that had slicked off the hillside, you know that that’s not going to happen very often. Does it mean it’s not going to happen again? Of course not.
RM: More debris flows are inevitable in Montecito. In fact, they’re how this area was formed, hundreds of thousands of years ago. They’re what carved those lovely canyons and created those picturesque creeks. Homeowners here had been landscaping around the boulders in their yards for decades, without realizing how they got there, and what they meant. Now geologists are studying the area with new urgency. They’ve found huge, earth-shifting debris flows as old as 125,000 years and as young as 1,000.
SC: This wasn’t the first time a debris flow had flooded Montecito with a wall of mud and rocks. It’s a regular, repeating cycle that somehow, everyone still manages to forget.
DAS WILLIAMS: In our area, we are very used to how to deal with fires. People know how to deal with fire. But it lulls them into a certain amount of complacency in how to deal with other emergencies.
RM: Das Williams is the elected county supervisor who represents Montecito. As an unincorporated community, Montecito doesn’t have its own political, decision-making bodies.
SC: And it likes it that way; the town has voted on incorporation before and it’s never passed. There’s a classic California libertarian streak here, which values private property rights alongside tight local community control and support. So far, Santa Barbara county has made it pretty easy for the residents of Montecito to rebuild. They’ve developed a streamlined review process and are mostly letting homeowners rebuild as they choose. Das Williams is just hoping they’ll choose well.
DW: Moments like this do provide an opportunity for people to soul search and go, “Maybe maybe it’s better if I either see if I can build outside of that envelope.” which is why we have provided more flexibility on rebuilding, or make the individual decision to not rebuild at all.
SC: But now everyone has to build with two threats in mind, fire and flood. You can clear brush from yards, install fire-resistant siding, build concrete roofs, and even buy systems that will shoot flame-retardant goo all over your house. You can close the crawl spaces above your foundation, and lift your house up on pilings. But you can’t make a home impervious to a boulder smashing into it at 30 miles per hour.
RM: The American Institute of Architects is weighing in with design recommendations, and FEMA updated its flood risk maps from 2012 to better account for the hazards that follow a fire. The best the county can do is require people to rebuild within these new guidelines, which call for houses in the newly expanded flood plain to be raised up on elevated foundations or pilings.
DW: We’ve made the decision that we’re not going to tell people that they can’t rebuild, as long as they comply with the FEMA recovery maps and the elevations in that map. But that does not mean that rebuilding is a good idea in all cases.
SC: Das Williams would actually like to see certain flood-prone neighborhoods stay empty, for the greater good, and he’s considering bolder steps local government could take. Eminent domain would empower the county to take peoples homes and land in service of public safety if the county could come up with the money.
DW: The majority of land out there, and this is a big constraint on our ability to improve the situation, is in private hands. And it’s in private hands with pretty high property values which makes it very hard for government to acquire land to massively change the equation.
RM: A single lot of land in Montecito can cost more than a million dollars, and Das Williams would like to buy a lot of it, with the help of local philanthropy. Parcels near creeks would be kept vacant, as memorial parkland, and would act as a buffer, creating more space between future debris flows and homes.
SC: There are other, bigger infrastructure projects that the government could try, that just aren’t available to individual homeowners. Metal nets could be installed on hillsides before large storms, to catch chunks of the mountain before they reach the town. And the 11 existing debris basins in the mountains, which are kind of like dams designed to catch large rocks and trees flooding down the hill — could be expanded and modernized. Das Williams is working to raise money for those new, bigger basins.
RM: The same people who don’t like the look of fire breaks seem unlikely to embrace stark concrete dams and oversized steel nets maring their beautiful hillsides. But if Das Williams has his way, they may no longer have a choice.
SC: My dad wasn’t affected by the January floods, but his house sits right in the middle of a historic debris flow. There’s a creek at the bottom of his steep driveway, and the tell-tale boulders line his neighbors’ yards. I showed him the FEMA map that puts him in the red zone. He hadn’t seen it yet.
DC: It bothers me to look at this map and see that red area pointing into our creek.
SC: But for my dad, the map appears to exist separate from his lived reality. So far, the house has made it through every disaster but one. By his count, those odds are pretty good. Any other evidence just isn’t persuasive.
DC: It needs to burn down twice for me to get a sense of how often it burns down. I mean burning down once, I don’t have enough data points.
SC: My dad’s math seems dubious, but part of his personal threat appraisal seems to be an assumption that disaster builds character. My dad likes to say he has a healthier relationship with the stuff he owns, because he’s experienced losing it all before. Plus, he says, with climate change, isn’t every place disaster-prone? Why not at least stick with the horror he knows?
DC: Well, it’s a place I love and it’s comforting and familiar. I could move somewhere else in California and have an earthquake. I could move somewhere else and have a hurricane take out all of middle of Florida. I could move to Houston, and have floods destroy the whole city then move to New Orleans have floods destroy the whole city. And you know every place has their issue. I’ve got the issue of a house that burns down once every 57 years.
SUSIE: Hopefully more than 57 years. [LAUGH]