Friendly Fire ~ The Architect’s Newspaper

It’s time for designers to embrace fire as the ecological and cultural force that it is.

By Timothy A. Schuler • October 29, 2020 •  

Advanced Prescribed Fire class NREM 4793/5793. conducting the Equipment and Spotfire Training exercise. T

This is the 15th year of that course being offered. The purpose of the exercise was to help the students to become familiar with all the equipment that they will be using throughout the semester while they conduct burns.

Out of this shift has sprung an entire vocabulary: rain gardens, sponge parks, living shorelines, hydrologic urbanism. Inspired in large part by Dutch planners, many of these terms are now part of the American planning lexicon. The idea of living with water is mainstream. Now, there are glimmers of a similarly paradigmatic shift taking place around another destructive force: fire.

Wildfires have become a startling fixture of life in the West. As I write, not one but three of the largest wildfires in California history are raging just outside of San Francisco, blanketing the city in smoke and giving the sky a preternatural, ghostly red glow. Smoke from still other fires has inundated Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, keeping pandemic-weary residents trapped indoors. In California alone, the fires have killed at least 25 people and gobbled up more than 2 million acres, an increase of 2,000 percent over 2019 figures. In Oregon, air quality dipped so low that it fell below the recommendations of the EPA’s Air Quality Index. By mid-September, the smoke from the fires stretched from Hawaii to Newfoundland.

Crews lighting scrubland on fire for controlled burns
A fire crew from OSU conducts prescribed fire exercises. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates drew on this expertise in formulating a maintenance regime for a massive urban wilderness near Tulsa, Oklahoma. (T. Johnson)

These increasingly predictable megafires—wildfires that exceed 100,000 acres—do more than endanger human lives and property. They damage ecosystems, threaten city water supplies, and, most worrisome of all, fuel a dangerous feedback loop. In 2018, wildfires accounted for 15 percent of California’s total carbon emissions. Those emissions exacerbate global warming, which in turn creates prime conditions for huge-scale wildfires.

As with catastrophic flooding, however, the causes of these deadly conflagrations are largely anthropogenic. Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems. From the oak woodlands of the California coast to the longleaf pine forests of northern Florida, these plant communities coevolved with fire, and periodic burns remain crucial to the health of keystone species. Native peoples across North America knew this well and used controlled burns to manage their lands. “Yosemite Valley was shaped not only by natural forces but by native people setting fires,” explained Irene A. Vasquez, a member of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation in California.

As a child, Vasquez learned about traditional plants and the benefits of what she calls “good fire.” She had an awareness of the other kind; her father was a wildland firefighter. But Vasquez has since studied the effects of Indigenous practices like prescribed burns on native plants like tule, a marsh grass used in traditional Miwuk basketry. “Native culture, our traditional foods—they’re all dependent on fire,” she said.

map of mariposa county depicting the county's history of wildfires
The Lake Tahoe office of Design Workshop is heading up what’s likely the first-ever wildfire resilience and recreation master plan for Mariposa County, California. (Courtesy Design Workshop)

Frank Lake, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a descendant of the Karuk tribe, put it even more succinctly: “For many indigenous people, fire is medicine.” Lake is also a cultural adviser to the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. Historically, lower-intensity fires not only aided ecosystems but also reduced the risk of uncontrolled blazes, Lake explained. The dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples, followed by a century of fire suppression, has allowed forests to fill in, generating unprecedented fuel loads. Meanwhile, continued development on the fringes of cities and suburbs, a zone known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, has combined with rising global temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns to make each fire season more dangerous than the last.

Design and planning professionals are not ignorant of the threat that wildfires pose to communities. However, many responses rely on defensive strategies deployed at the residential scale—using nonflammable materials and landscaping, for instance. There is mounting evidence that communities need to literally fight fire with fire, embracing periodic burns as a way to protect public health and safety. During last year’s devastating fire season in Australia, a period that became known as the Black Summer, wildfires consumed close to 45 million acres but were noticeably less severe in predominantly Aboriginal areas. As The New York Times reported, Aboriginal use of “cool burns,” i.e., low-intensity fires, helped halve the number of destructive wildfires.

Architects and urban designers can help cities think through the spatial implications of wildfires. This fall, UCLA participated in launching the ArcDR3 (Architecture and Urban Design for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience) Initiative, a new global design studio and series of symposia led by Hitoshi Abe, director of the school’s xLAB. The multidisciplinary partnership includes 11 universities located along the Pacific Rim and aims to establish “an international platform for the production and exchange of knowledge on environmental design that reduces the risk of recurring disasters.” UCLA’s Jeffrey Inaba, who with David Jimenez Iniesta is leading a studio focusing on fire, pointed out that wildfires have the potential to reshape large swaths of cities like Los Angeles, as land values in those areas that are most desirable but also wildfire-prone plummet. “The potential impact of fire is huge, not just to the hillsides but to all of L.A., because it’s going to mean a reorganization of the hierarchy of land value in the city,” he said.

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