"I’ve never seen the sunrise so bright," ASLA’s past
president Dennis Otsuji recalls his wife saying. "It’s bright
orange to the east."
The date was October 26, 2003, and what they were seeing was
the glow of the Cedar Fire, 10 miles from their San Diego home
of 18 years. One of seven wildfires that scorched 600,000 acres
from Los Angeles to the Mexican border in a week, the Cedar Fire
ultimately destroyed nearly 1,500 homes and killed 15 people.
"It was smoky," Otsuji, FASLA, remembers, "and
I said, ‘uh-oh, another fire.’ An hour later they were telling
us to get out."
The Otsujis’ property is located in a quiet suburb near Poway,
on San Diego’s hilly northeast side, which is punctuated with
small canyons where chaparral and eucalyptus thrive. Grabbing
their pets and a few possessions, the Otsujis fled down the main
"As soon as we started, the roads were jam-packed. We were
just basically parked trying to get out of there," Otsuji
says. On their heels came 100-foot-high flames, rushing before
the Santa Ana winds. Otsuji figures that a slight change in the
wind direction is the only thing that saved him and many of his
neighbors from a fiery death.
Shortly after the evacuees escaped, the winds changed again.
The fire swept up the valley, devouring long-neglected understory
beneath the eucalyptus and sometimes jumping into the canopies.
When the fire reached the Otsujis’, the house burned so fast and
hot that nails from the wood deck dropped to the sooty ground
in perfect rows.Blue-glazed planting pots shattered symmetrically,
leaving cylinders of baked soil holding small singed palms. Structural
concrete spalled in the heat. Aluminum was reduced to unidentifiable
puddles, yet a plastic trash barrel survived, its warped and bubbled
side still bearing the legible inscription "City of San Diego."
Bob Younger woke at one in the morning, smelling smoke. His wife
Sandra, a consultant to San Diego landscape architects Deneen
Powell Atelier (DPA), slept on. Bob called the nearest fire station,
three miles away, and was told that the fire was moving in a direction
that didn’t threaten their house. Two hours later, he and Sandra
woke again to see fire coming across the far side of Wildcat Canyon,
which their house overlooks. "We thought, ‘ok, it’s the other
side, we’ve got a little time,’" Bob says. "Literally
seconds later we saw it right here."
Wildcat Canyon is textbook "Urban Wildland Interface,"
the term firefighters use for areas where residences spread into
rugged wooded landscapes. The steep hills are covered with a mix
of chaparral and coastal sage—two fire-adapted vegetation communities—and
oak groves are in the stream bottoms. It has views clear to Mexico
and was exactly where the Youngers wanted to live. "It put
our hearts at rest," says Sandra.
If any home should have been fire safe, it was the Youngers’.
The contractor took every fire precaution with the house, and
the Youngers had spent $10,000 on officially recommended landscape
measures just a month before the fire. "This house was built
with all the fire-safe things in mind—stucco outside, flush windows,
sealed soffits," notes DPA’s Jon Powell, ASLA, a close friend.
"Below the house was pretty much cleared, all the correct
stuff, low plants, no touching canopies, trimming in between,
all that." In addition, the Youngers had a second firebreak
created farther from the house and added a 10,000-gallon water
tank with gravity-feed sprinklers. "Even though the power
went out," says Bob, "it dumped all that water into
this house, but it didn’t make a lot of difference."
The Santa Anas were gusting to 70 miles per hour in Wildcat Canyon
that night. The fire blew out the windows, in some places without
touching nearby vegetation. "Once the fire’s inside, there’s
really nothing you can do," notes Bob Younger. "The
kitchen had granite countertops, and you could crumble the granite
in your hands." Based on that and a melted porcelain tub,
insurance experts estimated temperatures at nearly 5,000 degrees.
Twelve of the fifteen people who died in the San Diego fires
perished within a mile of the Youngers, who were the last people
to get out of Wildcat Canyon alive. "Considering the intensity
of the fire and how quickly it moved, it’s remarkable more people
didn’t die," says Sandra. She and Bob, with their dogs and
Bob’s wildlife photographs, drove through fire and smoke "so
thick we literally couldn’t see anything," she recalls. "I
couldn’t see the road. This bobcat jumped out of the bushes, running
from the fire, right in front of our car. I could see him just
enough to know he was running down the road, and I followed him.
That’s how I knew where the road was."
What is unusual about these two stories, beyond personal tragedy
and courage, is what they say about landscape ordinances that
promise fire safety through vegetation removal. If those promises
were reliable, neither the Youngers’ nor the Otsujis’ house would
With 33 years of landscape practice in San Diego, Dennis Otsuji
is no newcomer to this naturally fire-prone region. Newcomers,
clueless about regional conditions, are often faulted (sometimes
justly so) for being in denial about fire issues and for refusing
to clear their landscapes. Otsuji, an advocate of regionally adapted
design, knows the issues well enough to have helped revise fire
codes that he calls haphazard. He and his neighbors had taken
steps to protect their houses and landscapes.
"I thought I knew our weak points," says Otsuji, "and
changed them. But on our street it was hit or miss. My neighbor
above, the fire went all the way to his fence, burned all the
eucalyptus trees, singed all his plant materials against his house,
didn’t burn his trellis, which is wood." But in almost identical
conditions at the Otsujis’, when the fire rushed up a vegetated
cut slope to their property line and a wood deck, it didn’t stop.
"It followed the manufactured slope on our side, came in
the yard, caught the house on fire, and that was it. And then
it skipped two houses and got one more."
Otsuji had designed and built the garden himself. It should have
met most of the guidelines advocated by "Firewise" groups,
whose federally funded publicity places extreme emphasis on "defensible"
(cleared) landscapes. Japanese influenced in style, the garden
contained primarily ground cover and small trees, their canopies
not touching, and it was subdivided by water features, pavement,
and the courtyard-based design of the house itself. "Things
we did," Otsuji notes, referring to the whole neighborhood’s
efforts, "stopped the fire in certain situations but not
If a seasoned landscape architect, well versed in local conditions,
can’t guarantee the safety of his home by following landscaping
codes, how can those codes help homeowners with less expertise,
or people who are in complete denial about the dangers of fire?
The Youngers may not have Otsuji’s depth of personal experience
in landscape management, but they made sure to comply with the
best official advice they could get. Following the letter of Firewise
regulations did nothing to protect the Youngers or their neighbors.
None of the houses on the Youngers’ hill survived, although all
were built similarly for fire resistance. On the far side of Wildcat
Canyon, though, two houses stand surrounded by uncleared and unburnt
greenery. A small fire burned there three years ago, and was contained
by firefighters. "What burned then didn’t burn now,"
notes Bob Younger. As Powell puts it, smaller local fires prevent
the catastrophic ones. Precautions like the Youngers took could
withstand such lower-intensity fires, but as fires burn ever hotter,
says Powell, there’s no defending against them.
When cleared "defensible space" fails to defend homes
where recommended precautions have been taken, something is wrong.
At the least, Firewise clearing puts an official stamp on a false
sense of security. At worst, clearing appears to contribute to
regional conditions that are making intense wildfires more frequent
and more volatile.
What is happening when fire-prevention recommendations, produced
by experts, often enforced by law, and followed conscientiously
by the Otsujis, the Youngers, and probably countless others, fail
to deliver the promised protection?
This question can only be understood by analyzing whole landscapes
and multiple issues, an approach landscape architects need to
bring to this critical policy debate. What are the unintended
consequences of fire-prevention policies in fire-prone ecosystems?
"There are so many factors involved in fire behavior,"
says one disgusted firefighter who wishes to remain anonymous,
"that to advocate using one single factor for control is
misinformation of the lowest sort." Yet Firewise codes, publicized
at immense taxpayer expense, hammer away at a single issue—landscape
clearance, a.k.a. "fuel modification" and "defensible
space." Although some codes also advocate resistant building
materials, improved access roads, and even zoning restrictions,
the first message to the public is always, as Otsuji puts it,
"Mow down all the trees."
Mission Trails Regional Park, a 4,500-acre open space a few miles
south of Otsuji’s house, illustrates the complex roles that landscapes
play in fire zones—roles not always well recognized even when
they save property and lives.
Ranger Sue Pelley has fought wildfires alongside volunteer and
professional firefighters, but today she concentrates on Mission
Trails’ role in public environmental education. When the recent
fires roared through the chaparral and coastal sage of the park’s
northwestern half, she says, "it was almost ideal as far
as the kind of fire we’d like to see"—that is, one that will
clear out growth. The chaparral, with its typical mix of resinous
plants like Ceanothus (many species of "California
lilac"), burns hot enough to expose bare mineral soil, required
to germinate many fire-adapted species. In coastal sage areas,
the fires burn less intensely, removing grasses. Even before Firewise
regulations, residential clearing had destroyed some 90 percent
of coastal sage communities, once dominant across southern California.
The park landscape stopped the fire, sparing not only Mission
Trails’ multimillion-dollar visitor center but also neighborhoods
beyond the park. "It just stopped at the San Diego River,"
says Pelley, "running out of fuel and reaching moist ground.
Time of day and temperature played a big part as well." In
San Diego, like most urban areas, many of the stream courses that
once acted as natural firebreaks have been paved over. Other valleys
have become open space and may actually conduct fire into neighborhoods
due to lack of maintenance. In the case of Mission Trails, the
natural conditions conserved in the park protected adjacent neighborhoods.
Not all the neighbors recognize their debt to the park’s native
vegetation. One neighborhood, outraged by the loss of several
homes, "didn’t want anything to be allowed to grow back in
Mission Trails. They just wanted iceplant (a hard-to-burn succulent
ground cover) planted everywhere."
Pelley understands the fear and frustration that drive such demands,
but blaming vegetation for doing what it is adapted to do is no
solution. "The idea we have to erase," she notes, "is
that we can prevent forest fires. Smokey the Bear has been telling
a story for a long time, and that’s not really the story we need
The story people need to hear is specific to region and ecosystem.
Current wildfire research is displacing conventional wisdom based
on "short periods of study and not enough information,"
Pelley says, but even so, there is too much one-size-fits-all
theorizing. For example, here in the chaparral, she says, "a
lot of fire management practices are being based on data from
pine habitat, which is completely different." She cites California
biologist Richard Halsey’s research showing that while historical
fire suppression in pine forests has made stands denser and crown
fires more frequent, wind-driven chaparral fires have been a constant
over the past 500 years.
Regulations based on canopy conifer forests aim to eliminate
underbrush and leave thick-trunked, well-spaced trees. These concepts
don’t deal with the reality of chaparral, which can be crudely
called "all brush and no trees," with high winds fanning
flames to enormous lengths. Both Pelley and Otsuji note that San
Diego County’s clearance requirements—from 30 to 100 feet—are
inconsistent, while Powell expresses dismay that "the fire
department is becoming the single overriding force in urban design."
Echoing the Youngers’ experience, Pelley says, "I think massive
clearing is altogether foolish because nothing’s going to protect
your structure if the wind’s blowing."
Southern California has enforced landscape-clearing regulations
for years (see "Design Under Fire," Landscape Architecture,
December 2000). Yet even Ventura County, which guarantees compliance
by clearing reluctant owners’ properties for them, had two vast
fires this year. There, even some of the most cleared landscapes
imaginable—agricultural ones—burned: vineyards, orange groves,
even boxed ornamental nursery stock.
Simplistic dogma about clearing still abounds. Near the barely
spared town of Julian, 40 miles east of San Diego, just beyond
an utterly charred state park, the California Department of Forestry
still displays a typical sign. "Reduce your risk of wildfire,"
it exhorts passersby. "Clear 30–100 feet away. Make it safe
"What they really need to look at is policy change and building
material changes," says Pelley. But zoning changes would
provoke lawsuits, and fireproof construction costs both homeowners
and developers. Far easier to get people to enlarge lawn- and
shrubscapes and let them think this makes it "safe to stay."
A false sense of security may be the least of the damage done
by fire-prevention clearance. There is growing evidence that clearing
actively contributes to conditions that are making fires more
intense, frequent, and uncontrollable across the United States
and the world.
"If someone told these homeowners," one landscape architect
mused, "that a logging company was about to remove 50 to
80 percent of the vegetation around their home, they’d scream
bloody murder." Yet that is the average required by Firewise
regulations for distances that add up to astonishing acreages
(see "Doing the Math").
The effects of removing significant percentages of existing vegetation
from an area are well-known. Organic matter that would normally
fall as leaf litter and compost into the soil is removed. This
decreases the soil’s capacity to retain water and make it available
to plants, and it also lessens the soil’s structural stability.
Removing vegetative cover, which normally holds soil in place,
leads directly to soil erosion, which removes yet more organic
soil in a vicious cycle. Runoff also increases so that less precipitation
stays around long enough to infiltrate the soil. With canopy shade
removed, the soil bakes and crumbles, eroding more easily. Soil
temperatures rise, as well as localized air temperatures. Last
but far from least, the cleared vegetation no longer absorbs CO2;
the loss of CO2 "sinks" is being urgently
monitored as a leading cause of global warming.
Warming and drought, in fact, are the common threads through
all the effects of clearing. Drought is what is really driving
wildfire today; the California Department of Forestry’s own pamphlets
state this flatly, and hardly anyone disagrees. Parched soil with
dry, stressed, and dead plants provides ideal conditions for fire.
Relatively small increases in air temperature can transform a
calm burn into an inferno. The same temperature changes, linked
to global warming, are believed to be responsible for gustier
winds and sudden fluctuations in weather—both of which make fire
harder to fight. Clearing on the scale demanded by Firewise regulations
contributes to each of these dangers.
Scientists are only beginning to quantify the relationships among
clearing, drought, and fire, but that is no excuse for ignoring
the likelihood that clearing to prevent fire is like damming rivers
to prevent floods. Processes like flooding and fire are inevitable,
and even though a "prevention" strategy may work in
some cases, it can actually worsen the problem.
Although the political and social issues of wildfire are immense,
landscape architects have a contribution to make. Without a whole-landscape
view of fire, drought-driven conflagrations will continue to intensify,
and accepted "safety" measures will become increasingly
ineffectual (see "Alternatives,"). "This might
be the right time for the national ASLA to put a task force together,"
says Otsuji, calmly thinking ahead beyond his personal losses.
Along with landscape ecologists and planners, our profession might
just have the beginnings of answers that work better than "clear
away, safe to stay."
A resident of Santa Fe, Kim Sorvig won the 2002 Bradford Williams
Medal for landscape writing.
(These resources were originally listed at the end of the article
"Will Wildfire Ravage Our Profession?" Landscape
Architecture, December 2001, and have been modified for this
Doing the Math
Official policy ignores the concern that clearing vegetation
may actually increase fire-prone drought conditions. "Firewise"
clearing (taxpayer-funded vegetation removal initiatives) is rapidly
expanding to affect millions of acres. The seriousness of this
issue becomes clear when you look at some rough calculations.
To examine how a simple rule like the "100 foot clear zone"
can affect a region, let’s consider a hypothetical region (size,
population, and policies similar to Ventura County): San Combustíble
County (SCC), California, has 1,180,800 acres (about 1,845 square
miles) and is home to 753,200 people in 243,234 households.
Every year, the scc fire department requires 15,000 households
to clear vegetation 100 feet around each residence. The average
house is 2,500 square feet, and the clear zone is 60,000 square
feet. It is also required that 10 feet on either side of a driveway
be cleared. The average rural scc driveway is 1/4 mile. Cleared
edges are 26,400 square feet. The total clearance is 86,400 square
feet, or 2 acres (not including house footprint or driveway surface).
The total for 15,000 houses: 29,752 acres, or 46.49 square miles,
cleared annually, increasing with new development. (At this rate,
the state of California would clear 2.5 million extra acres per
year.) The annual fire clearance is 2.5 percent of the county.
Buthere’s the rub scc, like many parts of the United
States, has only 10 to 15 percent not already cleared, of which
fire clearance affects 25 percent.
In scc, an acre of forest/scrub produces 2.67 tons dry weight
of vegetation per year (the green weight is at least double that).
San Combustíble regulations (like those in many real counties)
define clearing as removal of 50 to 80 percent of vegetation.
On nearly 30,000 acres cleared for fire "prevention,"
these percentages remove 15 to 24,000 tons. (scc’s dump charges
only $5 per ton, totaling nearly $100,000. Even if chipped, the
greenwaste covers an acre and is 5 feet deep.)
scc calculates stormwater using the familiar Runoff Coefficient
"C" based on surface cover. For cleared cultivated land,
C is about .2 higher (meaning 20 percent more runoff) than the
average for a mix of woods and grassland.
Like much of nonmountainous southern California, San Combustíble
County gets 10 to 15 inches of precipitation in a normal year.
Usually about half of that evaporates. An increase in runoff of
20 percent means the loss of about 3 inches of that precipitation.
Removing greenwaste from soil decreases the soil’s water retention,
compounding runoff losses.
Removing canopy decreases shade and creates heat islands that
are 3 to 8 degrees (Fahrenheit) hotter than surroundings. Even
a one-degree rise dries soil and fuels more quickly and can change
fire behavior significantly.
Although actual figures would depend on detailed soil and climate
measurements, San Combustíble County soils normally have 7 or
8 inches of water available annually after evaporative loss. Clearing
can be guesstimated to reduce that by 3 or 4 inches. The decrease
is more than 50 percent of normal availability and 25 percent
of total annual precipitation. These effects spread well beyond
the 30,000 acres cleared each year and obviously involve significant
trends toward drought.
Ordinary clearingfor agriculture, timbering, and urbanizationis
known to cause the kinds of soil and runoff problems discussed
here, leading to drought, spreading deserts, and global warming.
Clearing for fire prevention is no different. The policy is literally
backfiring, worsening regional conditions that favor increasingly
intense fires in exchange for "defensible space" that
offers little reliable protection.
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