by Jonah Susskind, ASLA
On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise, California, was destroyed in a matter of hours as the Camp Fire tore through the region, making history as the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire event ever recorded. Over the past 50 years, California and much of the Western United States and Canada have experienced a dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfires.
Today, the average fire season in these areas is two and a half times longer than it was in 1970. In California, six of the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires have burned in 2020 alone, with associated costs projected to eclipse 20 billion dollars. Experts caution that due to climate change, we have entered a new era of perennial megafires that will only become more destructive and costly in the coming decades. In California, these impending challenges have been magnified by the rapid proliferation of new housing along the outermost edges of metropolitan regions. These areas, known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), represent the fastest growing land use category in the United States, and are currently home to more than 11 million Californians (about a quarter of the state’s total population).
In Paradise and other WUI communities, these parallel risk factors—climate change and increased rural development—have been compounded by the state’s strict enforcement of federal fire suppression policies, aimed at eliminating wildfire from the landscape altogether. While these policies have been relatively effective at minimizing the impacts of wildfire throughout the past century, they have inadvertently created an increasingly hazardous oversupply of fuel in today’s forests. As a result, wildfires are becoming larger and more destructive than ever before, triggering a cascade of challenges related to firefighting operations and urban planning.
As Paradise and other front-line communities prepare for future wildfires or grapple with the challenges of rebuilding in the wake of these traumatic events, the role of landscape-based resilience strategies is becoming increasingly important – especially those that can help restore California’s many fire-adapted ecosystems by safely reintroducing periodic low-intensity controlled burns. Today, in partnership with the Conservation Biology Institute and the Nature Conservancy, the Paradise Recreation and Park District has been exploring strategies for reducing fire ignition potential through the use of Wildfire Risk Reduction Buffers (WRRBs). WRRBs are designated zones comprised of low ignition-risk land uses like parkland, orchards, or athletic fields which are managed to reduce urban ignition risks while offering additional benefits including open space for recreation, emergency refuges, and staging areas for fire-fighting.
Designing and maintaining “defensible space” in the WUI has been a longstanding practice at the scale of individual parcels. The basic concept ensures that combustible materials and flammable vegetation is cleared from the area immediately around structures, and that certain vegetation management guidelines are followed further out (typically in designated zones between 5 and 100 feet). Essentially, the WRRB idea takes this approach and scales it up to the size of the whole community by ensuring that lower-risk land uses are maintained between developed areas and undeveloped wildlands.
Taking this idea even further, a team of researchers and landscape architects at SWA Group have proposed a strategy for using these greenbelts as a spatial framework for reintroducing prescribed fire into the landscape in order to reduce regional fuel loads while simultaneously enhancing the ecological health of densely forested areas. The proposal leverages existing roadways, ridgelines, and utility corridors as a network of fuel breaks, and identifies a range of strategies for using mechanical thinning, animal grazing, controlled burns, and native planting to establish a 90,000-acre zone of protection that can be tailored to the specific landscape performance objectives of various regional stakeholders.
An example strategy in an active timber production area includes selective logging and burning of forest waste on the ground, which can create more productive timber yields and improve forest soils while reducing risk of catastrophic crown fires. This practice can also open up space for other recreational programing and regional tourism, helping to offset operational costs of increased forest management. Similar examples of multi-benefit strategies for mitigating risk while expanding recreational access and improving environmental performance were explored across a wide range of context-specific land uses and vegetation profiles.
Landscape architects are beginning to understand that the causes of today’s deadly wildfires are largely anthropogenic, and that new disciplinary approaches to fire—both technical and ideological—are necessary for addressing this resilience challenge moving forward. These efforts in Paradise, which highlight ongoing collaborations between landscape architects, public agencies, and scientific research groups, offer a glimpse into the possible future of rural design practice in California and throughout fire-prone regions.
Climate Central, “The Age of Western Wildfires” (Climate Central, September 18, 2012).
Jill Cowan, “How Much Will the Wildfires Cost?,” The New York Times, September 16, 2020, sec. U.S.
Dennis S Ojima, et al., “Chapter 9: Risk Assessment,” Risk Assessment, n.d., 22.
“Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Change 1990-2010 – SILVIS LAB – UW–Madison,” accessed November 26, 2018.
Conservation Biology Institute, Nature Conservancy, and Paradise Recreation & Parks District, “Paradise Nature-Based Fire Resilience Project Final Report,” June 2020.
Jonah Susskind, ASLA, is a Senior Research Associate at SWA Group.