Adaptations for Living with Wildfire 

In the last sixty years, the risk of extreme wildfire events for communities adjacent to wildland vegetation has dramatically escalated. Once considered an occasional disaster, extreme wildfire has become an established fixture in the Californian landscape. The increase in frequency and size of these fires has resulted in some of the largest fires in the state’s recorded history. Beyond the flame front, chronic exposure to air pollution increases premature mortality, and mental health issues arising from wildfire have devastating impacts on survivors and first responders.

As architects designing buildings in fire-prone areas like California, we have a responsibility to create sustainable, fire-resistant communities. Given this, how can we mitigate against growing catastrophic loss of human life and property?

Research from Perkins&Will examined the growing causes of wildfire in California to provide guidance to architects and designers looking to adapt and build more fire-resilient communities. It concluded that adaptation requires fundamental corrections in land stewardship, development patterns, and building practices.

Wildfires have always played a vital role in the natural environment, with predictable seasonal fires being part of the cycle of ecology. Historically Indigenous communities aligned their stewardship practices with the equilibrium of an ecosystem by utilizing controlled burns. . The sprawling development patterns of Western colonizers, however, led to zero-tolerance fire suppression policies, a cultural impression of fire as foe, and a false sense of security of for suburban communities residing within high-risk zones.

Controlled, low-intensity fire is one of the best means of reducing fuels and curbing catastrophic wildfires. Recent fuels reduction efforts offer glimmers of hope that California may begin to make amends for decades of excessive fire suppression by implementing a combination of sustainable felling, chipping, and prescribed burns that would balance fuel management with habitat preservation.

Another factor increasing fire risk is the growing amount of development in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), where human development occurs among wildland vegetation. Among U.S. states, California has the largest number of people living in the WUI, and this number is expected to continue growing significantly. Human-made structures are a huge source of fuel and spread fire more easily to other structures than vegetation alone.

To keep communities in the WUI safer, we need to break the continuity of fuels leading to densely populated areas – defensive belts like highways or bodies of water that can sometimes buffer communities from sources of ignition. This is not achievable for all communities. Ultimately, the largest safeguard from fire risk is a managed retreat that stops growth in the highest-risk areas and increases density in low-fire-risk locations.

Lastly, for structures built in fire-prone areas, architects and property owners must take responsibility for reducing the risk of structure ignition. The single most important measure that an individual can take in protecting a structure from ember ignition is establishing defensible space around the building. This entails a coordinated removal of combustible ground coverings like vegetation, wood mulch and furniture immediately fronting the building. Tree removal and seasonal pruning can help maintain defensible space while implementing home hardening measures like using noncombustible materials externally, adequately protecting openings like windows and chimneys, and installing alarms and sprinklers can improve the chances that a home will resist ignition. In recent years, the most successful areas have been ones that coordinate efforts to lift the burden of seasonal maintenance and ensure community-wide safety.

Given the global rising temperatures and increased droughts, residents and landowners within fire-prone areas will continue to be at risk from wildfire transmission. As designers committed to sustainable and regenerative design, we need to be attuned to the complex systems and landscapes in which our projects reside. While there are ways to decrease wildfire risk to humans, no combination of these methods outlined will ensure complete protection. It would be misguided if one were to use the measures of fire defense without acknowledging the inherent risk of building in these areas. Continuing to develop in wildland areas renews our societal commitment to the dichotomous preservation of human settlements in landscapes that are defined by and rely on wildfires for their existence.