Professional Practice

Resilient Design: Fire

Wildfire protection and suppression costs in the United States have more than tripled since the 1990s, surpassing $3 billion annually. The rise in cost is indicative of bigger fires and the greater threat posed by fires to communities.

Several factors have caused wildfires to grow and their threat to increase. Climate change, which has caused rising temperatures and drier conditions, and drought reduce moisture in the air and water in the soil. Higher temperatures and less precipitation make it much easier for fires to start. Also, many developments have been built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), areas where wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem. A proliferation of homes in these areas has therefore led to an increase in wildfire risk. Greater numbers of dead trees in the WUI means more fuel for wildfires. In these communities, there has also been the purposeful suppression of small fires, which then greatly increases the amount of understory fuel that wildfires can feed on.

How Resilient Planning and Design Helps

Smarter land planning and management is key. Some areas may simply be too high risk to live in. However, established communities already at high risk can embed remote sensors in areas prone to fire to track humidity, wind, temperature, vegetation density, and water availability, receiving alerts during highest risk periods. Communities can also create a comprehensive landscape-based wildfire protection strategies, such as “defensible spaces,” which have been successful in limiting the damage of spreading wildfires.Firewise landscape strategies involves planting fire-resistant trees and plants farther away from residential, commercial, and public properties. And in some communities, prescribed burns can alleviate some of the threat that larger, uncontrolled fires pose. They remove some of the fuel that larger fires feed on.


In many ecosystems, wildfire is integral to their function, so re-establishing the use of controlled burns can help restore the ecosystem. In these ecosystems, controlled burns induce vegetative succession, which is necessary for system health. Native plants are fire-resistant, so they support both the reduction of wildfire risk as well as increased biodiversity. And ecosystem restoration and prescribed burn projects can serve as great community-building projects.

Role of the Landscape Architect

Landscape architects work with planners, foresters, and arborists to design defensible spaces and firewise landscape that protect individual homes or communities. Landscape architects create master plans that lay out communities, so they can integrate landscape plans that improve safety.  

Prescribed BurnFirefighters watch a prescribed fire in Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Montana / Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Relevant Projects

Fire Management in National Parks

Greater Bend Wildfire Protection Plan

Lincoln Marsh Conservation, Lincoln Marsh Natural Area

Exhibiting the Ground: Applying Fire as a Design Element for the Stapleton Community

Prescribed Burns, High Park, Toronto, Ontario

Affecting Change to Avoid Disaster: Communicating Effective Wildfire Planning Strategies, Aspen, Colorado 

Firescape Demonstration Garden, Santa Barbara, California  


The Science of Firescapes: Achieving Fire-Resilient Communities, BioScience

A Landscape Architecture of Fire, Current Anthropology

Sustainable and Fire-safe Landscapes, California Native Plant Society

Landscape Design for Fire Safety, Pacific Horticulture Magazine

Defining the Wildland-Urban Interface, Oregon State University

Wildfires Are a Land Use Problem, The Dirt, ASLA  

Interactive Maps Track Western Wildfires, The Dirt, ASLA  

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

Wildland Fire Resilience Program, U.S. Department of Interior

Wildfires and Climate Change, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions  

Defensible Space Landscapist in the Urban/Wild Interface, University of California Cooperative Extension

A Synopsis of Prescribed Fire in New England, Ecological Landscape Alliance

Firewise Landscaping to Reduce Wildfire Risk, Normandeau Associates

Wildfire Planning Strategies in the Southeast, Mississippi State University

Prescribed Fire, U.S. Forest Service

Protecting Residences from Wildfire, U.S. Forest Service

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