After several years of extreme drought, last winter’s heavy rains quickly replenished many reservoirs and aquifers throughout the state. This wet season ended with months of record-high temperatures that dried out a surplus of vegetative fuel, and was followed by strong winds along the steep, hilly topography of many California suburbs. The result was one of the most socio-economically devastating fire seasons the state has ever experienced.
California has had a long history of wildfires, often caused by recurrent climatic symptoms: long, intense periods of dry, then wet, then dry weather that has now been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Couple that with an aggressive development history in highly fire-prone areas, the frequency of fires has more than quadrupled in the past three decades. In 2017 alone, California suffered a total of 8,442 fires that burned over one million acres of land, destroyed at least 9,000 structures and cost more than $3.3 billion in damage. Now compare these figures to the 1999 fire season, where about 6,000 wildfires consumed 273,000 acres of land, destroyed over 300 structures, and cost around $500 million worth of damage. The results are daunting.
Just as low-lying coastal communities have become increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding and hurricane events, communities in close proximity to or surrounded by wildlands (within the wildland-urban interface) are also becoming increasingly prone to uncontrollable urban fires. And while land planning and management strategies such as prescribed burning and remote sensing have been implemented to preemptively reduce these risks, what more can be done specifically in the context of urban environments? What roles can landscape architects, planners and urban designers play in creating more fire-resilient communities?
One such role may involve defensible space design at the neighborhood scale, where every home is designed with fire-resistant building materials, plant species and fire breaks to provide containment. Another may involve performative husbandry at the city scale, where goats are adaptively managed to graze on excess vegetation and reduce fuel loads (with the added side benefit of more goat cheese). Perhaps even new technologies such as weather modifiers, emergency reservoirs, and automated environmental monitoring systems can be integrated at the regional scale to gradually encourage landscape adaptations over time.
None of these scenarios alone can address all the complexities associated with urban fire risk but a redundant toolkit of strategies that is spatially and temporally distributed across our urban environments may significantly decentralize and shift the scale of our vulnerabilities. As planning and design professionals with the power to affect change, I believe it is our responsibility to provide new paradigms for mitigating urban fire risk – no matter how large or small. The American Society of Landscape Architects recently announced the launch of the Blue Ribbon Panel, which will advocate for climate change policy and resilient design. The Managing Principal of our Los Angeles studio, Ying-yu Hung, is a member of this significant panel. But this message is for all the rest of us: There is no better time than now to mobilize our profession in the exploration and implementation of alternative methods to adaptively design and plan for safer, fire-resistant communities in the future.
Elvis Wong is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio. Image of Santa Rosa, California, courtesy of the California National Guard.