Artbound

Artbound

Start watching
Fine Cut

Fine Cut

Start watching
SoCal Wanderer

SoCal Wanderer

Start watching
a large damn with graffiti of a woman with a hammer on it, mountains in the background

Earth Focus Presents

Start watching
Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Professor T

Professor T (Belgium)

Start watching
Emma

Emma

Start watching
Guilt

Guilt

Start watching
Line of Separation Key Art.

Line of Separation

Start watching
Us

Us

Start watching
The Latino Experience

The Latino Experience

Start watching
Key Art of "Summer of Rockets" featuring Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens.

Summer of Rockets

Start watching
Death in Paradise Series 10

Death in Paradise

Start watching
millionaire still

KCET Must See Movies

Start watching
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

Start watching
Tending Nature
New Special Airing Nov. 14

Tending Nature

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.
The West on Fire
Amidst the most catastrophic fires the American West has ever experienced comes a new podcast from the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

"The West on Fire" explores our relationship with fire past, present and future. We learn from dozens of multidisciplinary experts and work towards new ways of thinking about fire in the region.
  1. black and white photo of fire on a mountain shot from a distance
  2. African American firefighters in LA
  3. A picture of Smokey Bear on a sign that reads "Only you can prevent forest fires"
  4. Three people stand looking at the destroyed landscape after a mudflow, one woman has her hands on her head
  5. Fire burns on campfire logs
  6. a man rides his bike across an intersection and the air in hazy

What Happens After a Mudflow Destroys Your Home? The Hidden Costs of Rebuilding Post-Fire

Three people stand looking at the destroyed landscape after a mudflow, one woman has her hands on her head
Residents look over the debris and destruction caused by a massive mudflow in Montecito, California, January 10, 2018. Hundreds of Montecito residents were trapped in their homes after deadly walls of mud and debris roared down California hillsides stripped of vegetation by recent, ferocious wildfires. | California National Guard
Support Provided By

California is once again facing a horrifying wildfire season. The Dixie Fire threatens to break the record set just last year by the August Complex Fire, the gigafire that burned over one million acres. Thirteen of the top twenty most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2017, burning over 40,000 structures. We now see massive and destructive wildfires year after year, with seemingly daily reports of one fire’s rapid spread overnight or another barely held back by a combination of tremendous resources and lucky weather. And even when the fire is fully suppressed, the danger may not be over.

Intense rains after a fire can precipitate mudslides and debris flows that can bury homes or rip them from their foundations. Shortly after the 2018 Thomas Fire, the Montecito mudslides destroyed over 400 homes and killed 23 people, with two still missing. This week’s “The West on Fire” episode explores what happened there.

Two members of the California National Guard walk in front of and behind a woman, guiding her through knee-deep mud.
Members of the 1114th Composite Truck Company, California National Guard, guide a woman through the mud. The 1114th rescued or evacuated more than 1,800 people in the Montecito area following a deadly mudslide that struck the city in the predawn hours January 9, 2018. | California National Guard

Another challenge of the post-fire landscape is rebuilding. In the wake of fires and mudflows tragedies, homeowners must make hard and expensive decisions. Should we stay or just sell the property and leave? Will life ever be normal again? Where will we live in the meantime? How much will this cost, and how long will it take?

Those who decide to stay and rebuild can face an unexpected barrier to starting the process: just figuring out where your property begins and ends. Property surveys determine a property’s legal boundary lines, which can subsequently define where, what, or even how you can build. Surveyors rely on historical records and legwork, since many old deeds that define property boundaries were based on distance from local landmarks which may have changed over the years.

Property surveying can become a major barrier to construction when homes move after a debris flow or when property markers disappear after a fire. So many homes had physically moved after the Montecito mudslide that rebuilding couldn’t begin until surveyors had identified where the property lines fell.

The 2018 Camp Fire destroyed 11,000 homes and left just 7% of residential structures standing in the Town of Paradise. Today, homeowners must have completed a professional property survey prior to building to officially record property lines and ensure adequate setbacks based on municipal codes. But Paradise didn’t require property surveys before the fire, meaning that people relied on old, frequently incorrect, descriptions of their property boundaries, like wooden fences or distance from a large boulder. According to Charles Brooks from the Rebuild Paradise Foundation, many Paradise residents—himself included—only learned that they were inadvertently claiming their neighbor’s property as their own after conducting a post-fire survey.

Aerial photo of houses impacted by the mud slide with roofs showing.
A California Air National Guard rescue helicopter provides search and rescue operations in Southern California, impacted by a mud slides on Jan. 10, 2018. For those looking to rebuild their homes, property surveying can become a major barrier to construction when homes move after a debris flow or property markers disappear after a fire. | Sergeant Crystal Meyers, California National Guard

As Brooks explained, “Property surveying has posed a huge financial burden for the community as a survey can range from $900 to $8,000 depending on whether that property had a previous record of survey.” Though $8,000 is a tiny fraction of the estimated $336,000 needed to rebuild a home in Paradise, smaller costs from steps like surveying still add up, especially in cases when homeowners have insufficient or no fire insurance. And while Montecito is a wealthy town, Paradise is primarily a working-class community with a lower median household income than the average in California.

“This additional cost, when combined with several other pre-construction costs, can and has limited households’ ability to rebuild,” Brooks continued. “We have responded by offering grants, mapping and other resources to help offset costs associated with these challenges.” The foundation created an online map depicting each property with details on the surveying company responsible for identifying property corners. Knowing which company has already identified the corners on the neighboring property means that those corners don’t need to be surveyed again. Neighboring homeowners could band together by working with the same company to reduce some of the costs.

A dog searches through rocks and mud beneath a collapsed roof.
A search dog investigates a collapsed home. The 2018 mudslides in Montecito killed 23 people and destroyed over 400 homes. | Los Angeles Fire Department

Of course, once preliminary steps like surveying are completed, homeowners still face monumental challenges to rebuilding. Wildfires have pushed material costs up significantly, with lumber prices rising up to 50%. When fires destroy hundreds or thousands of homes nearby, contractors and construction companies quickly arrive to begin the rebuilding process, but there are simply not enough qualified construction workers available. Desperate homeowners have been duped by fraudulent contractors or those who overpromise and underdeliver, such as the Chiaramonte Construction & Plumbing Company which assured homeowners after the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County that they could have custom-designed homes for minimal pricing. Instead, prosecutors have filed nearly 60 felony counts for theft and fraud against the construction company when it failed to begin construction on dozens of its contracts.

A bulldozer sits atop a thick layer of mud covering roads near a construction site in Montecito, California.
A bulldozer in the road of Montecito, California sits amidst the destruction left by the 2018 mudslide. | California National Guard

Construction after a fire is frequently more expensive than expected, forcing people to reimagine their homes and try to save costs when they can. In both Paradise and Santa Rosa, concerns around the costs to build to wildfire-resistant construction standards prompted the city council to vote against ordinances designed to ensure greater fire protection for rebuilt homes.

It isn’t just homeowners who experience these heightened costs. Homeowners must have fire insurance to have a mortgage, whereas renters are not required to have insurance in California, and thereby can be left with no recourse when they lose their shelter and belongings. Price gouging after a wildfire can also make housing costs prohibitive for renters, particularly for those without the backing of an insurance company. The destruction from fires and associated debris flows have exacerbated already stressed housing markets in California. Greater demand and smaller supply for housing have increased home prices from Paradise to Berkeley. Meanwhile, fire insurance continues to grow increasingly unaffordable in California. Without serious changes to how we as a state manage our wildfire risks, Californians are likely to face hefty bills on everything from property surveying to rebuilding to insurance for years to come.

Support Provided By
Read More
a fire truck with smoke in the background

California Tribes Support Each Other and Seek Inclusion in State Wildfire Response

State agencies' lack of familiarity with Native lands has often led to interference with tribal evacuation efforts and unnecessary destruction of culturally sensitive habitat. To address the significant gaps between tribal needs and available assistance, even the smallest tribes do whatever it takes to care for their members and support other tribes.
a man rides his bike across an intersection and the air in hazy

The Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke Hit Vulnerable People Harder

Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles downwind, exacerbating health conditions and impacting marginalized communities most.
 Sign reading "Imperial Beach" with sunset in the background.

A Small-Town Mayor Sued the Oil Industry. Then Exxon Went After Him.

The mayor of Imperial Beach, California, says big oil wants him to drop the lawsuit demanding the industry pay for the climate crisis.