Designing homes for the fire zone

Fires in Southern California have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Author and designer Wade Graham says we are “enmeshed” in fire-prone landscapes and need to respond through smart design and policy.

Just before Tracey Reif was forced to evacuate her Carpinteria home due to the Thomas Fire, she installed a concrete deck and removed all the vegetation from her yard.

It was lucky timing. This serendipitous home redesign, initially intended to conserve water, is actually exactly what designers recommend as part of a package of fire prevention strategies.

Tracey Reif’s backyard during the Thomas Fire, just before her family evacuated their Carpinteria home.

Wade Graham, a landscape designer who grew up in Santa Barbara and writes about development and fire, says that in California “we build where we shouldn’t build, and… we’re committed to the illusion that we control nature and not the other way around.”

Graham, a guest on this DnA, says that, as with climate change, we need to adapt to increasing wildfires and mitigate the risk through a combination of policy and design.

This might include building structures that have fire shutters and roof overhang sprinklers, and requiring brush clearance.

“Fire is normal in these landscapes,” adds Graham, and as long as we continue to subsidize the building of homes in fire-prone areas, wildfires and structural damage will continue.

“At this stage, we spend so much money protecting private structures, there’s no money left over to actually manage fire in the ecosystem,” Graham said.