The owner of a red-roofed house in Maui, which gained attention for remaining untouched amidst historic wildfires, has attributed its survival to small, unexpected factors. The aerial images of the undamaged property went viral, even though some far-fetched theories emerged, including claims of a space-based laser attack causing local destruction.
Owner Dora Atwater Millikin dismissed these theories and credited routine changes made during a recent renovation for the house’s resilience. The house, entirely constructed of wood, was not intentionally fireproofed.
Atwater Millikin, a landscape painter, and her husband Dudley, a retired portfolio manager, had not considered wildfires when they renovated the century-old house they had owned for three years.
“We love old buildings, so we just wanted to honor the building,” said Atwater Millikin. “And we didn’t change the building in any way — we just restored it.”
An inadvertent choice that might have contributed to its survival during the deadliest wildfire in over a century in the US was switching out the asphalt roof for a heavy-gauge metal one, as revealed by the owner to the LA Times.
Amidst the fire, she learned that “there were pieces of wood — 6, 12 inches long — that were on fire and just almost floating through the air with the wind and everything,” she shared with the LA Times.
“They would hit people’s roofs, and if it was an asphalt roof, it would catch on fire. And otherwise, they would fall off the roof and then ignite the foliage around the house.”
Unintentionally, they also enhanced the property’s chances of surviving by laying stones along the ground up to the roof’s drip line and clearing foliage that was in proximity to the exterior walls. This measure was originally aimed at preventing termites, not wildfires.
Remarkably, it closely aligned with recommendations provided by experts. Susie Kocher, a forestry adviser from the University of California Cooperative Extension and co-author of a guide on fortifying homes against wildfires, noted the strong alignment with their advice.
“If shrubs and bushes, especially flammable ones, are right up next to the house and embers catch them on fire, the heat can burst the window and it goes right into the home from there,” Kocher told the LA Times.
The red-roofed house’s advantageous positioning might have stemmed from its distance from neighboring properties, which often serve as the primary fuel for fires. Rather than being closely surrounded, the house is bordered on three sides by the ocean, a road, and an empty lot.
Despite the presence of sprinklers, similar to most neighboring properties, the system failed due to power outages when it was crucial, Atwater Millikin explained.
Nonetheless, potentially flammable materials were largely cleared from the area beneath the deck, which also faced the ocean.
Kocher mentioned that the house possessed several attributes that would aid its survival during such calamities.
“People generally think that it’s a big wall of flames that is catching houses on fire, but often the mechanism is embers,” she said.
“So embers are coming from the flaming front, which could be some distance away.”
This misconception also gives rise to baseless rumors and speculations about why certain areas remain unharmed while everything around them is destroyed, she explained.
“I think conspiracy theories can flourish when we don’t understand how things happen,” Kocher said.
Atwater Millikin and her husband intend to return to Maui in the near future and extend an invitation to their neighbors who have been left without homes, allowing them to stay at their property.
“We lost neighbors in this, and neighbors lost everything,” Atwater Millikin told the California paper.
“So many people have lost everything, and we need to look out for each other and rebuild. Everybody needs to help rebuild.”