Fire Walk: Resilience and Recovery in the Wild/Urban Interface

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In mid-March, Rios Clementi Hale Studios gathered with members of LALA (Los Angeles Landscape Architecture) for a conversation and walk through the 2017 Skirball Fire burn area. Brendan Kempf from ML+A and I facilitated the walk to expose individuals from various Los Angeles design offices to the phenomenon of fire in the landscape, its relationship to the built environment and ideas for future recovery and prevention.

Meeting at the trailhead of Getty View Park, it’s clear that there’s an urgent need to create a stronger link between landscape architecture and the combustible landscape. From the trail, we could see how the fire came precariously close to homes situated in the wildland urban interface. Although not all homes escaped harm, most did thanks to the tireless efforts of the firefighters who fought to protect the area.

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This area is no stranger to fire, however; it had burned only five years ago across a 90-acre range. And before that, a wildfire had come through in 1961, destroying nearly 500 homes. Historically, Southern California chaparral would burn every 100 years or so, with enough time in between for fire-adapted plant communities to establish their roots and produce seed banks for recovery.

 

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What accounts for such a dramatic change in fire frequency, from 100 years to 10? Two main reasons: 1) the increase of fire ignition by human habitation and 2) the increasing rate of dryness provided by climate change and drought conditions. Given the development of this novel interface, between our city and the chaparral, is there a way for designers to proactively integrate combustion into our understanding of urban landscapes using the tools of design in conjunction with urban planning and land management?

Walking through the burn area, we were encouraged by what we saw up close. Native shrubs were rebounding with the winter rains—California cucumber, elderberry, sagebrush, and buckwheat to name a few. Witnessing the regeneration of this fire-adapted community, we speculated about future opportunities for designers to engage with the interface in different ways—regional seed bank restoration, site fuel modification, community awareness, and even advance warning technologies.

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At the end of our walk, we caught site of a mature oak tree standing at the top of a hill. We took a group photo with the surviving tree, a group of landscape architects interested in the future of this interface. Looking back at last year’s fire season, the worst in California’s recorded history, we ask: how can designers play a role in innovating the design of built edges in fire-prone landscapes?

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In 2013, RCHS developed a speculative design strategy responding to this general question. The result was ‘SLIDE: A Resilient Strategy for Stabilizing Mudslides in Los Angeles.’ The strategy proposed a network of cage structures placed throughout the wildland urban interface that would function on two levels: 1) as an armature for debris collection during storm events and 2) as an armature for public recreation and program on most days. Whatever the solutions are, we can— and must —do something as designers to increase the resilience of our wild and urban communities.

See for yourself. It’s possible for anyone to take an unguided Fire Walk through Getty View Park to see how close our wild and urban environments are to one another. More details here.