Calif. couple lost two homes to fires


Skip and Linda Miller look over the foundation of their burned-out home in Cuyamaca, Calif. on Tuesday, March 11, 2008. After losing a home to a firestorm in 2003 and its replacement last October, the Millers are planning to rebuild again. This time, their house will be built mostly underground and made as fireproof as possible, inside and out.

Denis Poroy/The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 10:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 10:23 a.m.

CUYAMACA, Calif. - 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 wildfire in 2003, then rebuilt it, only to watch the replacement house burn to the ground last October in another wildfire. 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, referring to the barren lot, where only two pine trees, an old Volkswagen Beetle and a ceramic garden frog survived last year's flames.

The fires last fall scorched 800 square miles from the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles, drawing criticism from fire chiefs and some lawmakers, who blasted developers for building in brush-filled canyons. The flames destroyed nearly 2,200 homes, killed 10 people and forced the evacuation of 500,000 residents.

The Millers' effort to build underground shows how far people will go to continue living in one of the country's most scenic areas, despite the fire risk.

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. Skip Miller built the home's wooden geodesic dome himself.

After the 2003 fire, Miller took early retirement from his job as a vocational teacher to supervise construction of a 1,400-square-foot replacement home, which had sealed eaves, double-paned windows and fire-resistant siding.

At the time, he thought the property would be made safe by new building codes and requirements on brush clearance adopted after the blaze.

For the third house, Miller wants to move the slab several yards back into a small natural hill to shield the windward side of the building from the flaming debris that ignited the second house.

Windows facing west and north will be reinforced with steel frames that are less susceptible to warping in heat, and the interior will be made from fire-resistant materials such as concrete and stone instead of wood.

Critics insist those measures will do little to reduce the risk of living in the tinder-dry countryside where most wildfires start.

"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.

The fire that burned the Millers' home last year was one of several started by downed or arcing power lines. Other blazes were sparked by campfires or household fires. None were started by lightning or other natural causes.

County officials have not challenged the tens of thousands of homeowners living in areas deemed to be at highest risk for wildfires.

And insurers are powerless because of a state law that prevents them from canceling coverage after wildfires. The Millers renewed their Allstate Corp. policy after the 2003 blaze, and the company is willing to 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 all the way to the sand. In 1985, a fire destroyed 76 homes just five miles from SeaWorld Adventure Park in San Diego.

Like many other residents in the fire-danger zone, the Millers relish their expansive views and the quiet setting. 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 59-year-old 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, 61. "There are some things you just expect and prepare for as best as possible, and you just live with it."

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