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What it’s like to live in a natural disaster zone

Across the United States, the frequency and size of wildfires are increasing, along with the population in at-risk zones

A firefighter stops to look at a wall of fire while battling a grass fire on East Cypress Road in Knightsen, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. The grass fire originated 3:08 a.m. on Gateway Boulevard on Bethel Island as reported by the East Contra Costa Fire Department. The fire then spread to a second location on East Cypress Road at 5:45 a.m.
Jose Carlos Fajardo, San Jose Mercury News

SALT LAKE CITY — When David Child, 61, evacuated his home in Westlake Village, California, last year, it was nighttime but the sky was red.

He could see the Woolsey fire coming over the crest of the hill behind his home as he and his wife and daughter packed three cars full of their most valuable possessions. Driving away on U.S. Route 101, there were flames on both sides of the freeway, shooting 40 feet into the air, he said.

For four days, Child and his family stayed glued to news reports, uncertain of whether their home would be destroyed. The fire crossed Child’s fence line, burned landscaping and patio furniture and filled the house with ash and smoke. But firefighters were able to save his home. Other families were not so lucky.

Now roughly a year later, it’s like deja vu. The Getty and Tick fires burn less than 50 miles away from Child’s neighborhood, and a smaller fire in Calabasas is just 16 miles away. Child said he lives with anxiety, knowing fires can travel quickly and that his home could be in harm’s way. Every time he smells smoke, he said it brings back the feeling he had the night he and his family had to evacuate.

A neighbor tries to extinguish lingering fire on David Child’s property in Westlake Village, California, following damage from the Woolsey fire in November 2018.
David Child

And yet in spite of all that, Child is staying put.

“It’s home. It’s an amazing place to live in so many ways: the weather, the community, the opportunity,” Child said. “It’s a risk, there’s no question, but people deal with risks wherever they live: earthquakes, tornados or flooding. Fires are just part of the risk equation.”

Across the United States, the frequency and size of wildfires are increasing, along with the population in at-risk zones, according to Stephen Strader, professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University. His research, published last year in the journal Natural Hazards, shows that over the past 50 years, the number of of western U.S. homes at risk from wildfire has increased by 1,000%, growing from about 607,000 in 1940 to 6.7 million in 2010.

Along with the fires in Southern California, the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, California, has “burned an area more than twice the size of San Francisco,” according to CBS News.

Evidence indicates that a changing global climate is not just affecting fires, but flooding, drought and other extreme weather patterns around the world. Facing natural hazards of all kinds, people are being forced to make a choice to stay or to leave — and when their homes are damaged, to relocate or rebuild.

David Child poses for a photo in Holladay while on business on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. Child, who lives near Los Angeles in Westlake Village, was nearly burned out during the Woolsey fire in November 2018.
David Child poses for a photo in Holladay while on business on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. Child, who lives near Los Angeles in Westlake Village, was nearly burned out during the Woolsey fire in November 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The decision is complex and based on a family’s finances, how connected they feel to their community and how much damage there is to local infrastructure, among other factors, said Crystal Kolden, professor of fire sciences at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources.

“There’s a lot of reasons people stay or go,” she said.

“It’s easy for people back east or even in the Midwest to say, ‘Oh, why do people want to keep living there where they have these horrible fires every year?’” said Kolden. “But the fires are a small part of the landscape. ... And they’re also something that we can mitigate the worst effects of. But we need to have the willpower to do it, and we need to invest in those sorts of mitigation activities.”

Living in harm’s way

Martin Espinoza is a journalist who lives in Santa Rosa, California, and has reported extensively on the area’s wildfires, now and in 2017. He said the effects of varying levels of post-traumatic stress disorder can be seen among community members. The most extreme cases are among those who have suffered significant losses, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a home. But even those who have been forced to evacuate, but were ultimately safe, experience some lasting trauma.

“There’s evidence of PTSD among everybody, not just people who have lost a home,” said Espinoza, who has evacuated his home three times due to the fires.

“By the third time, my home didn’t feel safe anymore, and that is a scary thing,” said Espinoza. “Now you have people that have not only been evacuated multiple times during each fire, but now there’s multiple fires. And so now it’s not just your house that starts to feel unsafe, but it’s your community.”

Lindsay Parker Bate, 27, evacuated her home in Coffee Park, Santa Rosa, on Saturday with her husband and 2-year-old twins. They are currently staying with a family friend in Sacramento and waiting to see if their home will be spared.

“After seeing two devastating fires in the same area within two years, I really don’t know if I would lay down roots where we are now,” said Parker Bate. “It’s definitely not easy with toddlers who wonder why we can’t go back home and miss their beds.”

Despite the fear that comes from living in a disaster-prone area, many, like Child and Espinoza, feel a strong connection to their homes and are not eager to leave.

“I still do love it here,” said Espinoza. “But the fires haven’t helped.”

Rebuild or relocate

Deciding whether to rebuild or relocate when a home is damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster can be difficult when a person feels strong ties to their community, and yet that place is seeped in trauma. The calculation of repeated risk is not easy to make either.

John Mullan with his wife, Kate Mullan. The Mullans have lost two homes due to hurricanes in Florida.
Mullan family photo

John Mullan, 74, never thought he would lose a second home to a hurricane after surviving Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Huddled for hours with his three dogs beneath a doorframe, he listened to the wind roar and watched as the wooden roof lifted multiple times and water poured into his one-story home.

Thanks to a good insurance policy, Mullan and his family were able to relocate and buy a house in Panama City. But 26 years later, disaster struck again. In 2018, Hurricane Michael toppled 82 trees on their half-acre lot and gouged their wood-sided, two-story house.

Mullan said he would like to rebuild on the property because he has close relationships with his neighbors and doctors in the area.

But Mullan’s wife wants to leave Florida and move closer to their children.

Damage to John Mullan’s property in Panama City, Florida, following Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
John Mullan

According to Strader, cognitive biases keep people living in places that are prone to disasters.

“They essentially think, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen here. It can’t happen to me,’ or, ‘Oh, it’s happened once; it won’t happen again,” Strader said. “Like a gambling analogy, people are saying, ‘I’ll take my chances because it’s my dream. This is the place I want to live.’”

In addition, there are few disincentives that prevent people from rebuilding their damaged homes in at-risk areas if they have insurance, Strader said. The burden of rebuilding infrastructure is shared by taxpayers.

For some, the decision to stay or leave is purely economically driven: Where can they get the most for their insurance money?

“Some people do go to another community or another state where they can rebuild more for what they got for their burnt home,” said Espinoza.

But more often, the decision to remain or relocate is based on a variety of complex factors.

“It’s their families, their friends; it’s their connections. Certainly for some it’s the economy, their jobs. For some it’s just where they grew up. It’s all these things wrapped together, and that makes it very difficult to think about,” said Dave McWethy, a professor of earth sciences at Montana State University.

McWethy said communities should do a self-evaluation, taking into account whether members are prepared to make improvements and take preventative measures, in order to decide whether it is safe to rebuild or not.

Resilience

For those who decide to stay in disaster-prone areas, there are ways to rebuild communities and make them stronger and safer.

Child said he has made improvements to his property in Southern California, which include clearing brush from the hillside behind his house. If he were to rebuild, Mullan said he would clear the trees that caused damage to his house and put on a metal roof, instead of one made from shingles.

Damage to David Child’s property in Westlake Village, California, following the Woolsey fire in November 2018.
David Child

In a recent paper, McWethy and Kolden identified Montecito, California, as a good example of a city that has taken effective measures to prevent fire damage. After experiencing a series of fires in the 1990s, community members took action. They cleared burnable vegetation from the space around homes, reinforced houses with fire-resistant building materials and used techniques like prescribed fires to decrease the density of forest areas surrounding the city. They also implemented detailed fire planning and response programs.

McWethy said Montecito’s efforts paid off in 2017 when it was predicted that the Thomas fire would destroy 700 homes. Instead, only seven homes burned down.

However, there are barriers to improving community resilience, and few communities have taken as comprehensive an approach as Montecito, said McWethy. There is no simple solution, and implementing a wide range of measures to prevent damage from future natural disasters can be overwhelming, time consuming and expensive.

“There is no one silver-bullet solution,” said Kolden.

According to Espinoza, some people in Sonoma County are rebuilding their homes smarter, using fire-resistant materials like concrete. But some are going back to the same old wood construction design.

“We need to stop thinking that fire is just a passing phenomenon,” said McWethy. “In the West, it’s something that is inevitable in the future, and the sooner we accept that, I think the sooner we will actually be able to live with wildfire in a more positive way.”