With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

Washington state wildfire / Wikipedia

This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.

What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.

Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.

Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.

So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.

One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.

Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.

This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.

We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.

Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.

One thought on “With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

  1. milliontrees 11/16/2017 / 1:14 pm

    It is disappointing to see this sentence in the publication of professional horticulturalists: “Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species.”

    Virtually all of the fires in the west occur in native vegetation. Here in California there are many native plants and trees that are highly flammable. Bay laurel trees contain a great deal of oil and they have a fire ladder to the ground. Most of our native conifers are resinous. Many ubiquitous native plant species are equally flammable: chamise, baccharis, manzanita, etc.

    Yes, native plants in Mediterranean climates are “fire-adapted.” That doesn’t make them “fire-resistant.” To the contrary, they require fire. Therefore, they do not resist fire because fire facilities their long-term survival.

    I understand that nativism has a strangle hold on the public’s imagination, but that’s not an excuse for horticultural professionals to pander to that ignorance.

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