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The Woolsey Fire

Voices from the Future | Greg Kochanowski

The Event: On November 8, 2018, a small fire started in the Santa Susana Mountains’ Woolsey Canyon, near Simi Valley California. But then the Santa Ana winds gusted, and the next day, the fire had crossed the Ventura Highway and was heading south toward Malibu. By the time it was done raging, the Woolsey Fire would burn 96,949 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, along with 1,643 structures. Nearly 300,000 people were evacuated, and for two weeks, they were told not to return to their homes. If their homes remained.

Greg Kochanowski knew that wildfires posed a serious danger to his Los Angeles community. He had lived in the L.A. area for over two decades, worked as an architect and taught about landscape design sustainability. But did he believe that he would ever face them?

“The answer is no, because people tend to think that it happens to other people but not me,” says Kochanowski. “It’s a typical psychology around disasters. I think it allows people to live in places that are uncertain, where they have floods or fires. It is sort of protective ignorance.”

Late on November 9, 2018, this changed. Nothing could have prepared Kochanowski or his family for the devastating consequences of wildfire that reached into their tight-knit community in Aguora Hills and left little beside ashes and destruction.

“I knew it was serious when the firetrucks started to drive through our neighborhood telling people to evacuate,“ Kochanowski says. “I had come home from work a bit earlier. By 11:30 p.m. my wife, our 12-year-old daughter and I had packed our car and we were ready to leave our house and drive as far as we could away from the fire. We ended up in Burbank.”

The Kochanowskis had some essentials in the car with them, such as clothes for two weeks, an accordion folder with essential papers and some picture frames from the living room wall, as well as two dogs, a cat and a rabbit. “My wife and daughter packed better than I did,“ Kochanowski says. “My daughter grabbed a lot from her room that was important to her. She had few black trash bags with her. I guess there was some wisdom in that.”

The status of their house was unclear for two days, as the wildfire continued to ravage the area. Koshanowski faced sleepless nights at the hotel and a growing sense of unease as he heard more and more contradictory information. Kochanowski was dependent on the official local news reports or what his friends and neighbors had witnessed and passed on.

“To get reliable and up-to-date information about the fire wasn’t easy,” Kochanowski says. “Although lots of information was available on social media and the news, much of it was conjecture because everything happened so quickly. On Friday, for example, we were told that our community was saved or that it burned down. Our friend told us, ”’Hey, I saw the helicopter footage on the news. It looks like your house is okay.’”

It took nearly two weeks before the fire was contained. Kochanowski’s neighborhood was hit hard: A total of 110 houses out of 217 were lost. One of them was Kochanowski’s home—completely gone.

The grief and confusion about the future was overwhelming for him and his family. But his initial response was eventually replaced by an outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and strangers as the community started to face what happened and imagine rebuilding.

“After five weeks, we finally had access to our neighborhood,” Kochanowski says. “When I returned, I knew I was on my street of eight years but all the landmarks and cues were gone. There is a huge disjunction of feeling both connected and it being unrecognizable. Your neighbors are there and little moments come rushing back. And there was this wall of people who surrounded us and offered their help. Everywhere we turned, people were offering something, money, clothing, food, a place to rent. You really start to believe that people are inherently good. You start believing in the human race again.”

To give back, Kochanowski has become an educator in his community and has given multiple talks in town halls about how to rebuild, employing sustainable practices not only for fire, but also for stormwater debris.

“When residents start to think to rebuild, it’s not only the houses that have to be rebuilt,“ Kochanowski explains. “The whole infrastructure must be replaced: the melted streets, the asphalt that was buckled up, the sewer that was contaminated. After the fire, portions of our community were blown out with flooding and debris.”

By chance, Kochanowski gave a talk at the American Society of Landscape Architects a month before the Woolsey Fire about how neighborhoods can institute a plan to prevent fires and create sustainable landscape designs.

“I’ve done research on this issue for five years prior to the fire,” Kochanowski says. “Now I’ve put it all in practice. But still, to be honest, I don’t have straight answers right now. I am kind of living the research, but still: For example, we have lots of common zones in LA area, but how we control those? Or how do we instill defensible space around individual houses? How do we keep embers not flying into our neighborhood? The debris from the filled-up reservoir is another issue. How do we keep it and mud out when flooding happens in our neighborhoods after the storms? We are mitigating, strategizing and trying to come up with solutions.“

For his own family, Kochanowski is committed to rebuilding where their house once stood. But a sense of doubt and impermanence permeates the neighborhood. Some people are firm about staying and rebuilding. Others are selling their empty lots.

“In my family, we go back and forth, honestly,” Kochanowski says. “There is a psychology in place which is: ‘OK, the fire came through, but it isn’t going to come through again.” But still I worry. From a financial perspective, if we want to stay in LA, we kind of have to rebuild. And it’s still our home.”

Kochanowski reflects on the various perspectives. “There are people who were underinsured, and they have to sell, because they have to live. Then there are people who are moving back, no matter what. They think: ‘This is my home.’ Who knows, we might find ourselves sitting at that home and feeling petrified and having to leave.” And for those who see this neighborhood as their heritage? “That is a stronger pull than danger. So it’s comprised of all these different perspectives, realities of people’s lives, where they need to be and what they need to do. But it is hard. My wife will start crying every time we drive through the mountains.”

Kochanowski is mindful of how these experiences change one’s understanding and relationship to the land and the environment. “It is a culture of people versus wilderness, which is shifting radically and is happening now and the next couple of decades,” he says. “L.A. was made from sheer brute force and will: ‘We are going to bring water and electricity to this place.’ And it is built in total opposition to its environment. But what I’ve learned living here is that model is gone.”

For guidance about the future and living more harmoniously with the land, Kochanowski reflects on the use of controlled burns by Native Americans, for example, and the need for a more strategic government response. “Everything is shifting so much,” he says, “so these issues are in the forefront for me now. I don’t think we are able to solve these problems on an individual basis, but with mass education. We need a psychological shift that people start to demand those sorts of things.”