Burning house

"If forests were meant to burn, why not the houses in them?"

Natural disasters like the recent California wildfires are not going to go away, so the only option is to rebuild with temporality in mind, argues Aaron Betsky.

What is the best way to design a home to withstand the sorts of fires that are ravaging our forests at ever greater scales? Don't live in or near a forest or dry scrubland. Ultimately, there is nothing that can truly fireproof a home when the conflagration reaches the scale and intensity that are normal in forest fires.

Yes, you can build a hardscape "moat" around your house, clear away brush in the area, and build the structure out of non-flammable materials but, ultimately, if the fire is big and intense enough, you will be left with the charred remains of your bunker.

Two California fires (Camp in the north and Woolsey in the south) this fall received more than the usual attention not only because of their scale and deadliness, but also because they affected the rich, famous, and media-savvy inhabitants of Los Angeles' northern suburbs.

They were made more intense by the prevalence of non-native species, especially eucalyptus, that burns much more readily and more intensely than the pines and other trees that have adapted over the millennia to the semi-arid climate.

They also came as the result of a policy of preventing fires at all costs, rather than letting them rage and clear out and reinvigorate the forest. The very presence of human beings – with the cigarettes, sparks from their cars and other devices, and a host of flammable materials with which they surround themselves – also made the situation more dangerous.

There is nothing that can truly fireproof a home

Ultimately, however, it is that very human inhabitation that is the real problem. The reason there are non-native species, that we do not allow fires to happen organically, and that they happen so often is that human beings have invaded the forest and brush habitats to such a degree that there is almost no virgin territory left, certainly not in California.

Finally, the climate changes we are producing are everywhere, causing the droughts, intense weather events, and high temperatures that also contribute to the fires.

So, the easiest answer to preventing the loss of life and property is not just not live in climates and landscapes that we were not meant to inhabit. If we do insist in living in forests and on the dry hills of coastal California, we will have to suffer the consequences sooner or later.

Forest fires are, in other words, not the result of mismanagement (as President Trump claimed) or a breakdown in prevention, but of sprawl. It is the fundamental engine of urban growth, which also underlies much of our continued economic expansion, that is to blame for the disasters we are witnessing.

It is interesting to note that The Economist pointed out the week of the California events that the frequency of forest fires is actually diminishing at a global scale, as arboreal areas in Africa and Asia disappear. There, urbanisation is taking place in coastal areas away from fire zones or, when it does happen near arboreal environments, the cutting down of the trees is making the whole point moot. That is obviously not a good thing, but it points out how out of scale our reaction to the California fires really is.

Building to lose is less crazy than it seems

Obviously, sprawl is not going to stop. People will move back to Paradise, Malibu, and Agoura Hills. Deforestation is not an option, as it is only making climate change worse, not to mention the environmental disaster it represents in and of itself. We are left with mitigation. This can take two forms: build to lose or build to last.

Many years ago, when my husband and I were thinking of buying a small plot of land at the back of Sea Ranch – the vacation community Charles Moore, Lawrence Halprin, and others laid out in the early 1960s three hours north of San Francisco – we were told that whatever we built there was uninsurable.

Our lot was both on the main trace of the San Andreas fault and in a fire zone. Whatever we designed there should be something we could ultimately live without. Though we walked away from the deal, as a strategy, building to lose is less crazy than it seems. If forests were meant to burn, why not the houses in them?

Given the sophistication of warning techniques that let people evacuate on time (though they apparently broke down in Paradise), the idea that you invest a minimal amount, store your valuables either elsewhere or in a vault underneath your house, and in general enjoy whatever structure you inhabit for its temporary beauty, does seem to make sense. That is especially true as we are becoming increasingly mobile, living in our suburban and exurban homes for years, rather than decades.

The danger of forest fires is, in other words, yet another reason why we should give up our fixation on building to last, and to creating monuments to our own wealth and achievement. We should build as little as possible, out of available materials, as cheaply as possible, in ways that can both adapt to our continually changing lives and that we can recycle, reuse – or let burn down – as necessary.

Such an architecture is more environmentally, socially, and economically sane, offering us open and adaptable structures in place of monuments only the rich and powerful can afford.

We cannot prevent forest fires. We can only live with them

The alternative is to build bunkers, both physically and in terms of how they are protected. The wealthy inhabitants of places like Malibu can afford enough land to clear-cut around them, and even private firefighters who can hose down their houses if embers blow in from beyond the property's perimeter.

The only problem is that the more safely you build the house, the more out of place and out of touch it will be with its surroundings. The whole point of building in the woods is to be close to them: to see them, smell them, and hear them all around you.

The bunkers that have been built in places like the Berkeley Hills, where countless expensive homes burned down in the early 1990s, make it clear that they want to keep everything and everyone out, and they could be anywhere. Whether it is because of the threat of fires or "others" who want what you have, the architecture of exclusion will always look and be alien.

On top of that, the bunker might not be enough, not only because of the ever-higher temperatures the conflagrations reach, but also because of the threat of such ancillary phenomena as the mudslides that often occur in deforested burn areas.

However painful it might sound, it seems to me that the only sane answer to how to deal with forest fires is to let them burn, and to get out of the way. If that is not possible, let it burn, and rebuild as lightly as possible. Contrary to what Smokey the Bear has been telling us for over half a century, we cannot prevent forest fires. We can only live with them.