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Taking the Heat

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THE WILDFIRES HAD DEVASTATED THE Mystic Hills neighborhood of Laguna Beach, Calif., reducing street after street of luxury homes to charred rubble. Bui the white Mediterranean-style residence at 1527 Tahiti Avenue still stood, alone in the devastation, its red-tiled roof intact, its while stucco walls unscathed. The only signs of the Oct. 27 inferno were two cracked windows and a deck table scarred with pockmarks from flying embers. It seemed like a miracle—to everyone except the man who owned the house, To Bui, 42, a Vietnamese-born civil engineer. “I always knew my house would be safe,” he says. “I believed in it because I built it with my own hands. I wanted to make it fireproof, earthquake-proof and landslide-proof.”

His caution was grounded in experience. He grew up in Vietnam and has vivid memories of his family fleeing their burning apartment complex when he was 8. After living 19 years in Germany, Bui came to the U.S. in 1989 with his German wife, Doris Bender, 44, and their four children. For two years, using 8350,000 in materials, he built the four-bedroom fortress, complete with thick walls, double-paned windows, sealed eaves, a concrete-tile roof and so much insulation that “everybody thought I was crazy,” says Bui.

Everybody except the firefighters—and Bui’s wife. Even with blazing houses on either side, firemen saw that the Bui house had a chance. “Mr. Bui made it defensible,” says Battalion Chief Ron Blaul of the Orange County Fire Department, “and we defended Doris believes it all boils down to her husband’s unflagging perfectionism. “He is a person who must do everything right, better than 100 percent,” she says.

As for their homeless neighbors, they are more awestruck than envious. Some have even asked Bui to help rebuild their homes. He just may. After all, despite his own family’s good fortune, their neighborhood is a wasteland. “I feel very unhappy for the others,” says Doris. “Our house is still here, but it feels terrible to live in ruins.”