update: I'm now doing some training as a volunteer
I think the permaculture concepts of 'zones' around the home, and the wildfire prevention 'zones' for fuels reduction, could really work together if what you're worried about is surviving a fire.
I can't conceive of the scale of alteration that would be required to change the West into a non-fire-prone landscape: a landscape that would not catch on fire in lightning storms every summer. There's evidence is that it's been fire-adapted for thousands of years, basically since the last ice-age and between the ones before that. Some of the species that thrive under periodic wildfire have been working on those adaptations for millions of years.
But we also have evidence that we used to have more variety of Western forests, wetter lakes and landscapes. The Colorado was certainly wetter a few centuries ago than it is now, although it may have been drier before that. Some of these effects are artifacts of global climate changes, not necessarily only the modern ones - water deposits that were remnants of ice-age glaciers are being drawn down, and mountain glaciers and snowcap vary from year to year, currently diminishing, but still a factor in year-round streams and rivers.
We can also point to specific influences that humans have caused in this landscape over recent centuries: The depletion of beaver populations, the introduction of horses and then wheeled transport; the change from widespread Native American practices like migratory and settled gathering rounds, to widespread Western European practices like tillage and grazing livestock; the broadscale deforestation of ancient forest lands, and introduction of invasive species (both cultivated and weeds) to the floodplains and steppe hills. The reliance on subterranean fuels instead of forest debris, and patterns of settlement that change people's interaction with forestry and small fuels (and pole) collection.
The idea of cutting swales or key-lining the forest throughout the American West presumes a level of mechanical input that has never been affordable, and is likely to become less so if we are indeed past the peak of cheap energy
production. It also implies a huge amount of disturbance added to already-disturbed territory, which is well-adapted to fire but highly susceptible to rapid erosion due to steep terrain, sparse groundcover, and short growing seasons for revegetation. Currently, we have about 3 months of spring when the landscape is reliably neither frozen nor parched - and almost all the wild vegetation grows explosively at this time, then sets seed by July. Much of it goes dormant for late July, August, and early September, our fire season.
We don't seem to have "fire winds" that are special bringers of disasterous fire seasons - every single summer sees humidity below 20%, and tinder-dry forests and sagebrush steppe.
I've heard about Neil Bertrando doing keyline restoration work on a few hundred acres of degraded grazing lands in Nevada, but that was a multi-year project
, on lands with little standing timber, and a carefully-planned disturbance. It did make a big difference, I hear.
Small fires here burn that much territory in a day.
The Carlton fire complex, by contrast, has burned over 250,000 acres since July 14, and is still not completely contained.
There just aren't enough
Neil Bertrando's to go around.
The fuels buildup in these areas is high, and if you look at some of the map overlays, the big fires often get stopped along a boundary with a previous years' big fire. Areas that have burned out 2 or 5 or 10 years ago are easier to fight fire in than an area that hasn't burned in decades.
So that thing people are saying, about fire being 'a natural factor of these regions', that's definitely happening. It is patchy on a large scale, and sometimes on a small scale. Patchy disturbance is great because it leaves adjacent areas as seed-banks. The large-scale intense burns are not as good, because they sterilize more soils and can exceed the seeds' travel capacity.
But what's the alternative? The only things I can think of that would completely cut short the cycle of lightning-strike or manmade fires that rip through the dessicated fuels every summer would be catastrophic changes to our environment: a new ice age, a wildfire that burned the entire landscape leaving no fuels, bombing strips of land to 100-mile-wide barrens and keeping them denuded down to mineral soil. However, the opposite approach - encouraging forests to revegetate and conserve soil moisture longer into the summer - seems to create local vulnerability to fire but ultimately reward the region as a whole with reduced risk and a more moisture-moderate climate.
The natural process of lightning-strike fires, and the speed of available human response to fight those fires, is going to ensure that we have ongoing patchy fire processes all over the American West. There is no way to prevent it, with the available people, resources, and time. Even without human firefighting, the fires do sometimes skip
a little pocket of wildlife. Human firefighting just preserves larger unburned patches adjacent to those that burn. In these recent fires, it's been alternating between putting things out fast, or just defending homes and infrastructure.
Lightning's not the only cause - we've had careless barbecuers, campfires, unsupervised backfires, trucks driving over dry grass or hay
fields, and trailers dragging metal or running on rims that throw sparks into the weeds and ignite a fire. there may be other human causes that have gone unreported because someone called it a lightning strike when the problem may have been more accurately described as a big metal barn full of petroleum-derived fuels, which happened to catch a lightning strike. But lightning alone would be sufficient to keep wildfires an issue.
I don't know of any biologically-derived material that will not catch on fire if hit by lightning.
I don't want to see non-biological materials (crustal minerals, rock, asphalt, concrete
) replacing biosphere as a 'solution' to wildfire.
Many arid-climate plants are resinous or oily, and have finely-textured leaves and bark, part of their strategies for conserving moisture. They burn like torches when the heat gets intense enough - whether or not they are dry. Many of our native plants go dormant in the summer and are able to burn, or not, depending whether fire comes by - it's not just dead and down, or snags, or debris.
Most evergreens are like this: pine, juniper, cedar, even some of the broadleaved evergreens use waxy coatings on their leaves to conserve moisture, or fine-textured leaves, or resinous pitch.
The alpine lichens that swell up like seaweed to absorb winter moisture, are in summer dry and oily enough to burn like flash paper.
Sagebrush, chaparral, and other semi-arid scrub plants are notorious for having rich concentrations of fuels due to their aromatic resins.
It seems unlikely that we will manage to grow corridors of some kind of plant that's resistant enough to stop the spread of fire, when there's a 100-year-old pitch-pine burning like a torch and its needle litter is igniting below it.
I would not like to see all the native pine and sagebrush removed, even if it were possible to remove it all.
The soil crusts that form in the 'bare' areas between bunchgrass and brush are a key part of slowing the erosive damage, and they are easily destroyed by over-grazing, machinery, or landscaping projects.
Bill Mollison talks about the types of plants that don't burn readily - those that store water in their leaves instead of having waxy or dessicated leaves. I will keep an eye out for them, but I think around here they're mostly irrigation-dependent. Summer drought can crisp most things up well before the fire arrives, and the radiant heat from the burn-ready materials can do the rest of the job
. On a local scale, swales and other irrigation-supplementing or water-harvesting features could create little bands or rings of fire-resistant trees. Analogous to running the cottonwoods and aspen of the creek beds along a longer path, girdling the hillside instead of just down each vertical wash / chimney.
Our landscape is basin-and-range, characterized by enormous geological-scale swales and rock-ridges. These formations affect the weather: the rain falls on the seaward (west) side of the first two mountain ranges, leaving little further rain until the higher slopes of the continental divide.
The primary weather pattern from coast to mid-basin is Mediterranean, where most of our rain is in spring, some in winter, and we typically see 2 or 3 summer months without significant rainfall. Summer thunderstorms bring lightning more often than rain. Somewhere to the east of us, the Rockies and Midwest seem to have more summer moisture, and the eastern continent from the Mississipi valley east "breathes" moisture from the Gulf and Great Lakes northward, then eastward for most of the summer.
So the big challenge is to increase the water retention in the landscape to more than 3 months capacity. And we have evaporation rates something like 3 to 4 times the annual precipitation rates - and I would guess that the evaporation is far greater in summer, especially in windy weather which also accelerates fire - and that's when there is effectively zero precipitation. Seeing dew on the grass is remarkable, even on a farm with sprinklers running every day - a once-a-month event.
I have tried hugel
beds of increasing size the past few years, and while they do increase the time between waterings, I haven't yet managed to get typical garden
annuals to survive 3 months of summer drought. I'm also trying out more drought-adapted cousins, like horseradish instead of broccoli.
Will continue the experiment - if nothing else, it's harder for a slash pile to catch on fire if it's buried in dirt or pond
The scale of hugels required to sustain moisture levels through an entire Western summer - to the point where they changed the climates of entire forests so that we got routine summer rains without lightning, and the trees could not catch on fire if you set a match to them - that level of terraforming is kind of inconceivable to me.
If you did that, it would not be the West as we know it. That's for sure. It might resemble the West as it once was, sometime before European settlement, sometime back closer to the ice age water deposits.
I don't know of anywhere on the planet with our combinations of altitudes and prevailing winds that is humid rather than arid. Inland basins protected by mountains between them and the coasts tend to be dry and scrub-steppe - even on an island as small as New Zealand. Does anyone have a counter-example where a landscape in the rain-shadow of mountains still manages to retain year-round humidity, due to biotic or landform influences?
Beaver dams are probably part of the missing piece. We are still short on beavers centuries after the trapping boom, in which colonial powers competed to strip all the available beaver out of regions so their competitors' trappers would not find it worth encroaching on the territory. Beavers are a major agent for creating sedimentation instead of erosion, and they also tend to coppice the small fuels and keep them relatively green and open. The orchard growers do not love them, though, not
in a big way.
A population that appreciates water as a scarce resource, and doesn't do jackass things to "stop flooding" which happens for maybe 2 weeks a year, such as funneling it downhill faster, would be nice
. A lot of the population of the arid West seems to come out here for freedom
, or cheap land, or to escape from Big Brother. Most enjoy more elbow-room and fewer people. We have some ardent permaculture junkies, but no matter their politics
, few Western neighbors take kindly to unsolicited advice. And rightly: a lot of folks who arrive from other climates have a huge range of strange and unworkable ideas, and are often responsible for fire-related foolishness that costs homes and sometimes lives.
Yet even the worst fire conditions often leave patches unburned. A mountain will be nothing but charcoal and sterile soil, and there'll be this little patch somewhere that still has blooming wildflowers, a fruiting tree. Ironically we hear about numerous woodpiles that survive when their houses don't - which should
tell you something about how effective a woodpile is as a method for getting wood
dry enough to burn. It would be drier if you left it on the tree.
I have heard dozens of stories of places that were well-maintained surviving a fire that blew past.
So I think that giving careful thought to 'zones' for fire as well as human function is the most useful, doable, and practical response to living in a fire-prone landscape.
It is NOT acceptable or ethical to light fires in any season for the purpose of reducing fuel loads, except by careful coordination with authorities, the public, and trained expert supervisors. People have been arrested already this year for lighting unauthorized backfires below teams of firefighters on the ridge. Bill Mollison's stories about his firestorm notwithstanding, these tactics can endanger the very people trying to save your home, and MUST be coordinated with authorities if they are to do more good than harm. Modern communications means that we have phone, Facebook
, radio, and television sources for information - and we can also keep our senses alert to signs of fire danger in the weather, approaching lightning storms, or signs of smoke on the horizon. It is not always easy to stay informed throughout fire season, but it is our obligation to coordinate with other people locally rather than undertake an independent, possibly murderous action on our own authority.
Even in winter our landscapes are dry enough that a fire can spread fast - one winter burnpile a few miles from us was burned (and presumed extinguished) January, only to blow up again in an April wind and light off about 10 acres. A similar story from across the valley involves an October bonfire that blew up again the following March or so. Burn piles should not be placed over stumps in our climate - they should be on mineral soil, at least 6 feet radius in all directions, the pile not more than 4' in any dimension (1.2 meters), and MUST be supervised throughout the burn by someone with redundant means to extinguish spot-fires (hose, shovel, buckets, large-capacity extinguishers).
I don't have much use for burn-piles, myself. There are so many better uses for forest debris, from hugels to mulch
. Routine use of small-fuels for heating and cooking has many of the same effects as a controlled burn, without the dangers. Historically, you could often tell how long a village had been established by the radius of the cleared woodlands around it.
I think swales, moats, ponds, or large cisterns for ample water are a good tactic in general, and may save your bacon
if you are forced to stand and fight it out. (not recommended - crown fires are basically unfightable). As Bill points out, in a really bad fire they will boil and steam, so they're for suppression not refuge.
The size of area required for a true 'safe zone' is tremendous - four times the height of the surrounding trees, and that's a bare minimum, without fuels of any kind. You are unlikely to have a true safe zone in a permaculture landscape. Rocky scree may appear to be without fuels, which is deceptively dangerous because it can collect a lot of flammable debris and embers between the rocks.
You might be able to make a pond that big, or a seasonal pond / meadow that could be close-mowed in fire season. Grazing animals on a swaled landscape can maintain a close-cropped sod that would at least host only very short flames, though the fire can creep below ground.
But what you're really looking for is not what firefighters consider a 'safe zone' - you're looking for a defensible space, an area where you could reasonably put out a small fire without it threatening the house, or where if you were forced to evacuate ahead of a large fire, you have a better chance than anyone of finding the house intact on your return.
Landscaping and maintenance are long-term commitments, but they (and topography) seem to have more influence over fire behavior than the house materials as such. Not that thatch is ever going to be easy to defend, but even metal or concrete won't protect you if there are any wood- or plastic-details near roof eaves / doors / windows, and there is a lot of high-intensity radiation from flammable debris nearby. Radiant heat can even ignite things indoors through window glass.
Our fire chief says "sweat the small stuff." Eliminate windblown debris where embers can land at the edges of the house, that kind of thing. Because while you can't always defend against a catastrophic fire, you can do quite a lot to help your home survive a lower-intensity fire. Firefighters report that a lot of fires are survivable - the wind blows flames through too fast to catch all the grass on fire, or the flames creep slow enough that a sidewalk or rock wall can stop them. Spot fires from embers may re-ignite the fire downwind, leaving little unburned patches in between.
The pit-houses buried in 2 or 3 feet of dirt seem like the most likely natural shelter from a fire, that would survive whether or not it was defended. Especially with the traditional sand-pit fire area in the center below the roof hole.
Having a root
cellar on the place that can double as a fire shelter sounds pretty good.
Do note, however, that a home with holes in the top and a door in the side looks a lot like a rocket stove
. Make sure that the cellar door can be closed in a fireproof and airtight way, leaving you breathing cool soil-filtered air while hotter air and gases escape upward. As Bill suggests, a dogleg or turn from door to back corner so that radiant heat is blocked. You can do a down-and-up cold-sink entrance like an igloo, or a sideways turn, or a rock wall outside the entrance with no flammables between it and the door.
Bill also suggests locating fire-blocking structures (swales, less fire-prone trees, etc) below your winter sun angles, but on the sunward side. His area has winds coming from the same direction as the sun, which promote fire conditions.
In our areas, fire is more likely to be coming upslope. Wind conditions change throughout the summer, and some of the worst fire conditions involve dry lightning from thunderstorms that create localized strong winds in all directions. I'd love to see some examples of permaculture (or conventional) landscapes, especially Zone 1 and 2 designs in wildlands-urban areas that have survived several fires, yet are proceeding toward deeper soil banks and longer-lasting moisture reserves.
I think we also have to talk about how we coordinate between landowners and communities, designing sensible communities for fire resistance. This is not a conversation that's easy to have with a lot of arid-lands landowners; there's a strong cultural bias toward selfish independence, or land rights that disregard larger consequences.
This is as good a community as any I've seen for starting productive conversations between conservatives (property-rights) and conservationists (ecological considerations). There are a lot of permies and back-to-the-landers involved in traditionally conservative roles like firefighting, medical, and farming. It will be exciting to see what we can do together.