How one family rebuilt their home after a wildfire—and what you can do to protect yours
Updated July 10, 2018
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Taking the heat
When a wildfire forced Peter and Story Kornbluth to evacuate their Santa Barbara home in May 2009, the last thing Peter saw was the bougainvillea catching fire. The next morning, the hilltop house was gone. Despite the enormous loss, “there was never any question in my mind that I was coming back here,” Peter says. With only the concrete garage left standing, he thought, Clearly that’s the way to build.
Instead of rebuilding a wood-frame house, the couple decided to use a lightweight, fire-resistant system, called SCIP, of concrete panels around a foam core. They added steel windows with double-pane, tempered glass to withstand wildfire temperatures as well.
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With safety taken care of, Story, a sculptor, modified her original design of the 3,500-square-foot house to include a family room for grandkids and more open spaces to improve the flow. In an homage to the land, they built their cabinets using the scorched olive trees left behind after the wildfire.
As the couple completed construction, they witnessed the landscape of salvias, agaves, and Matilija poppies regrow too. “The bees and the hummingbirds came back,” Story says. “It just made it feel all right; we were starting over.”
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With its view of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands, the steel-framed structure is the couple’s favorite spot to catch the sunset.
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Oklahoma flagstone veneer adds another fire-resistant layer to the home’s exterior while blending the house into the Los Padres National Forest, which borders the Kornbluths’ acreage. “We wanted it not to stand out but to disappear,” Story says.
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Seared olive wood from the land was salvaged to build the cabinetry. ”We were determined it wouldn’t be discarded,” Story says. All the wood is inside; this time, Peter says, “there are no flammable materials on the outside.”
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Bleached lumber in a box-beam ceiling grid is purely decorative, yet it re-creates the structural look of the support beams the couple had in their first home. The insulated concrete panels in the roof eliminated the need for interior support.
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The Kornbluths chose tall, narrow windows to make the bedroom feel sheltered from the elements. A dove gray colorant was added to the plaster walls to create a soothing tone.
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The couple selected seagrass limestone for the walls to reflect the mountainous landscape out the windows. The earthiness sets off the sleekness of the showerhead and bathtub.
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How to safeguard your home
“Fire season is now year-round,” says captain David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Here's how to protect your home from a wildfire.
Install vents that block embers and flames from entering.
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Two words you need to know: defensible space. Clear the area 100 feet around your home of dead grass and leaves. Space out vegetation and trim tree branches.
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Airborne embers can travel a mile, and the large surface area of a roof makes it most at risk. Use a nonflammable material, such as slate, with closed eaves, and keep the roof and gutters clear of debris.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
Use multilayered, tempered glass in a metal frame, such as steel.
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Avoid wood or polyvinyl in favor of a noncombustible material like stucco.
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These can be ignition areas. Build them out of stone, brick, or concrete.