Couple Plans to Rebuild House Underground
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CUYAMACA, Calif. (AP) - It will take more than two destroyed homes to get Skip and Linda Miller off the mountaintop property where they've lived for 30 years.
The Millers lost their house to a firestorm in 2003, then watched the replacement burn to the ground last October. They were the only family in San Diego to lose a house twice on the same spot. Now, they plan to build there a third time - only the house will be mostly underground this time.
"That was my house, but this is my home," Skip Miller said on his barren plot, where only two Aleppo pines, an old orange Volkswagen Beetle and a ceramic garden frog survived last year's fires.
Fire chiefs and some lawmakers criticized the push of Southern California housing tracts into brushy canyons after last fall's fires scorched 800 square miles in a daisy chain from the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles, destroying nearly 2,200 homes, killing 10 people and prompting the evacuation of about a half-million people.
But those criticisms, voiced after every major fire, have failed to spark serious debate about changing where Southern Californians build. The Millers' efforts to outsmart nature show how far people will go to keep living in one of the country's most fire-prone areas.
The Millers bought their 10 acres in the Cleveland National Forest in 1978 after giving up their fantasy of living on an island beach. After selling their house in suburban San Diego, they spent three years living on the site in a 28-foot camper with their four children while Skip built the wooden geodesic dome himself in his spare time.
Skip, 61, took early retirement from his job as a vocational teacher after the 2003 fires demolished his domed house to supervise the construction of a 1,400-square-foot replacement with sealed eaves, double-paned windows and fire-resistant siding. He believed the county's stringent new building codes and requirements on brush clearance would keep them safe.
He was wrong.
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Miller insists the third house will be just right. He wants to shift the slab several yards back into a natural hillock to shield the windward side of the building from the flaming debris that ignited the second house.
Windows facing west and north will be girded with steel frames that are less susceptible to warping in heat, and the interior will be made from fire-resistant materials like concrete and stone instead of wood, to tamp down any embers that sneak in - even though Linda, 59, is reluctant to give up the oak cabinets that graced the kitchen in the second house.
Critics say those measures may reduce damage caused by wildfires can't lower the risk created by letting people live in the rural areas where most wildfires start. The fire that burned the Millers' home last year was one of several started by downed or arcing power lines, while others started as rural house fires or were sparked by campfires. None were started by lightning or other natural causes.
"You can armor these houses and subdivisions all you want but that doesn't get at the root of the problem, which is that you're putting more people in these fire-prone areas," said Cary Lowe, a real estate lawyer and planning consultant in San Diego.
County officials won't challenge the tens of thousands of homeowners like the Millers living in areas deemed at the highest risk by the state fire marshal.
Insurers are powerless, thanks to a state law that prevents them from canceling policies after wildfires strike. The Millers renewed their Allstate Corp. policy after the 2003 fire, and the company says it would renew it again.
The Millers point out that not all fires start in remote areas. Last year, a wildfire in seaside Malibu, north of Los Angeles, burned down through relatively populated canyons all the way to the sand, and a 1985 fire destroyed 76 homes above urban, brush-choked canyons five miles from the SeaWorld Adventure Park in San Diego.
Like many others who live in Southern California's fire danger zone, the Millers relish their expansive views and quiet. On clear days, they can see San Diego's Coronado Bridge, 40 miles to the west, and the San Jacinto mountains nearly 100 miles north.
Living in a rented apartment as they prepare to rebuild reminds Linda Miller, a preschool teacher, why she wants to stay put, despite the bumpy commute to work on unpaved roads.
"Where we're living now in town, I can hear the people down below us all the time, and next to us - you can't see them, but you can hear them," she said. "So it would be a lot to give up."
Still, the Millers recognize that fire may strike a third time.
"It's probably similar to people in New Orleans building below sea level, or someone building on an earthquake fault," said Skip Miller. "There are some things you just expect and prepare for as best as possible and you just live with it."