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Clients come to Susan Friedman Landscape Architecture (SFLA) with varied goals in mind. More usable outdoor space and reducing water use are frequent requests. And, the recent years of catastrophic fires bring concern about fire safety to the forefront of our collective mind. Too many lives and homes have been lost. As fire season approaches again, I caution, and hope to empower our community to do what we can do to protect ourselves from the destructive effects of fire. Living near our open spaces provides beautiful views and opportunities to enjoy a landscape that fire helped define. SFLA can offer fire resistant landscape designs that help you live in harmony with our fire-adapted landscape. 

Susan Friedman, Principle of SFLA says, “When the summer heat and winds kick up, fire danger increases too. If you live in a fire prone area, learn to protect your property, one of the biggest investments most people make.”

The number of homes located in the Wildland-Urban Interface has increased by 41% within the last couple decades, according to Timothy A. Schuler’s article ‘Taking the Wind Out of Wildfire’ (Landscape Architecture Magazine, March 2019). Schuler suggests we may live in the Era of Megafires. They affect 5000% more land than fires did just two decades ago. He notes these fires also make way for other environmental hazards such as mudslides, greenhouse gas emissions and loss of the carbon-holding capacity in forests that burn down. 

To better understand how we can design to face challenges with the Wildland-Urban Interface, I spoke with Prescribed Fire Specialist with the Forest Stewards Guild, Kate Williams. She told me, “We’re not necessarily seeing an increase in the amount of fires…but we’re seeing an increase in the size of high-severity wildfires in recent decades.” This may seem like splitting hairs, but the significance has to do with the fact that fires have naturally occurred here for so long. So, why has it become such a problem more recently? Kate explains:

“Some of this increase in fire severity is due to suppression efforts over the past century preventing wildfire from naturally reducing vegetative fuel loading and creating breaks in fuel structure; some of it is due to climate change contributing to longer periods of hot and dry conditions which stretches out the seasonal window where high-intensity wildfires typically occur. If we look at the three components that dictate fire behavior, which are; topography, weather conditions, and fuels, we can come to the quick realization that the only factor we can control is the spatial pattern of vegetation on our property or adjacent to our neighborhood…The trick is to design and safeguard our communities to withstand catastrophic wildfire.” 

Historically, the First Peoples inhabiting this area were able to work with fire and controlled burns to maximize the benefits of the local flora. When new sprouts emerged from soil enriched by burned materials, wildlife was attracted to the area making hunting easy. This kind of stewardship of the land worked well. In the podcast 99% Invisible (Episode #317-Built to Burn) Roman Mars points out this history, and how that practice came to an end, in an exploration of  how design can influence our resistance or susceptibility to wildfire. 

In the podcast 99% Invisible (Episode #317-Built to Burn) Roman Mars points out that, historically, the First Peoples inhabiting this area were able to work with fire and controlled burns to maximize the benefits of the local flora. When new sprouts emerged from soil enriched by burned materials, wildlife was attracted to the area making hunting easy. This kind of stewardship of the land worked well but came to an end, and we are seeing how unfortunate that loss is. We now understand that using similar techniques can influence the resistance or susceptibility of our modern homes and neighborhoods to wildfire. 

In Mars’ podcast, Research Physical Scientist Jack Cohen, a founder of Firewise, shares how we can “break the vicious cycle” of increasingly intense wildfires. It is by designing and maintaining our properties to make them resistant to fire. He calls this the “Home Ignition Zone” which describes what kind of materials and plants we should have 0-5’ from a home, 5-30’ from a home and 30-100’ from a home. This concept is much more widely accepted now and I have listed several resources at the end of this article that describe the zones fully.

Most of us are now familiar with terms such as “fire ladder,” “defensible space” and “fire triangle.” Hills Emergency Forum offers wildfire prevention fact sheets to the community. Their advice includes: Spacing or grouping plants to slow down a fire to eliminate fire ladders and maintain defensible space; Clearing out brush, dead branches and raking up leaves to reduce the “fuel load” in the landscape, and pruning trees one-third of the way up the trunk; and, Closing external vents on your home, having boxed eaves, and non-flammable horizontal surfaces (roofs, decks) to help prevent ember showers from igniting your house.

A good example for the use of hardscape near your home as a fire break.

“If you are considering a landscape improvement project,” says Susan, “…a few things to think about are: Patios and Pathways, which act as fire breaks, and can be made from a variety of beautiful paving materials; Recreational Spaces, such as Bocce Courts, horseshoe or corn hole pits can be made from materials like concrete, pavers, natural stone or decorative gravel; and, Plant Selection and Placement, sparsely spaced plants that contain high water content like cactus and succulent plants is best practice.”

So, the good news is, with informed design and maintenance we can make our properties less appealing to the appetite of a fire. Reducing the fuel for fire around your home does not mean using a ton of water, either. California native plants can be a good choice, as they remain healthy (without dead, dry branches) through the summer with little to no water, as do succulents and rock gardens. Choosing non-flammable or difficult to ignite materials like rock mulch, metal trellises and retaining walls is also helpful. Landscape architects, designers, arborists and gardeners can help you navigate this territory to protect your home. Fires are going to happen, but rather than always trying to stop them, we can work toward a different goal: Kate advocates for the ability to evacuate “…without the need for firefighters to defend your home.” 

Let SFLA help you implement precautions to prepare your property for fire — and continue to enjoy our amazing, fire-adapted landscape!

Thanks to Kate Williams for the following suggestions and resources:

Other resources: 

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