Richard Register

Ecotowns – safe from fires both local and… global climate change

You all know about the horrendous fires in Northern California. I think the arguments for ecocity fire safety solutions are water tight, so I’ll share an opinion piece that I wrote in response to those fires and throw in a couple of additions to the original along the way, such as the view from the airplane and the views of Kent Wilson.

I’ll start with the first of those additions. As usual, I’m the illustrator, of course.

I was flying toward Oakland International Airport late at night, passing over the brooding mass of the craggy Sierra Nevada mountains, draped in snow, marching slowly eastward like ranks of a determined army of giant ghosts below. The pilot had just announced we were beginning our descent for landing. I know not how long I was staring downward, but then suddenly realized I was lost. Must have spaced out because I couldn’t recognize any pattern in the thousands of lights below. It certainly wasn’t the Bay Area. Manteca? Stockton? Certainly not Livermore. No sign of distant light to the north which would be Sacramento. Then I suddenly realized we must be over the western slopes of the Sierra and its foothills and those tens of thousands of acres lit up down there must be exurban sprawl, most of the lights shining up from under the trees.

Well, if that isn’t flammable what is?!

But as for the mother of all conflagrations, like the gigantic “Wine Country Fires of 2017” and the “Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire of 1991” that destroyed 3,375 homes – the fires in October destroyed 4,700, a new record for California (non-earthquake fires) – ecocity design is a giant chunk of the solution.

That means compact development from, tiny village to city scale with everything most needed close together: residences, shops, jobs, food, renewable energy sources, recycling facilities, fire-fighting equipment and so on all close together. This is a vision of apartments and condos plus all the necessities and a lot of the graceful features of life, even at small scale. It means scant or no cars in the developed area. We are talking something like the compact European village with restful plaza, cozy hotel, post office, café, restaurant, general store, people on foot and seated, people-watching.

The regional pattern could be a kind of “ecotropolis” of ecocities where city centers are now located, ecotowns where sizeable urban districts are located, and ecovillages that are transformed versions of neighborhood centers. Or there could be the smaller scale versions, linked by transit and bicycle trails, where now stands thinly scattered, fire-vulnerable suburbia and exurbia. All those constructed communities would be walkable and each center surrounded by nature or close in agriculture. That turns out to be defensible from fires of the sort we’ve seen in the Oakland Hills in 1991 and in the Wine Country just this year.

The biggest plus of all, the ecocity approach is preventative medicine for global heating and climate change, too. Very low density automobile dependent development looms large in bringing on the mega-fire, literally heating the whole planet with the byproducts of over-mechanized “civilization” making the whole Earth more prone to localized fires. The infrastructure dependent on cars and paving with its extra millions of acres in flammable yards of bushes and trees, is the largest cause of both fire vulnerability in California and is the long-term big problem with climate change for everywhere where cities are designed for automobiles deep into the future. Design for people on foot – pedestrians – instead. The climate connection is the burning of fossil fuels for transport and for heating and cooling of the extremely inefficient sprawl layout with carbon pumped massively into the sky.

Try imagining a few hundred people in an ecovillage form. It covers one tenth or less of the landscape as the same number of people would cover in north Santa Rosa, the worst hit area of the 2017 fires, or the scattered housing of the Oakland Hills which is what flamed out in 1991. There could be many such villages of differing sizes in such regions such as ours. Smallish real towns too. In these communities, nature remains just outside the door and only a block or two or three away.

In fire prone areas such as ours, the fire winds are about as dependable as you can get in terms of their direction, coming generally from the northwest. Build a couple good-sized public pools with their typical paving and lawn landscaping, plus some buffer clearance of brush and trees – good for views, too, by the way.
After the 1991 firestorm here in Oakland I went to a number of recovery workshops where salespeople were showing gasoline powered high-pressure water pumps with hoses and long-range nozzles for serious fire-fighting. Some people with pools were buying them. During the 1991 fire, four people owning pools jumped in, pulled plastic pool covers over their heads and survived the wall of fire passing over them.

Station a few of those water pumps just upwind of the pools and when the flames arrive, fire up those suckers (literally) and put up, as the firefighters were saying at those meetings, “a curtain of water.” In the ecovillage arrangement, you have a very small area of land and built infrastructure to defend with a relatively large number of defenders compared to low-density development. And the fire front moves through relatively quickly, as the professional fire fighters were telling us at the time. So be macho and do just that: defend. Not everyone is capable of such action, but better to be a hero defending from fire and winning than trying to fight against it too late, that is, after the extremely vulnerable sprawling town fringe has been built.

I drew an illustration of such a community, though such communities could be both larger and smaller. I’ll include it here, zooming in close to the actual fire-fighting in three steps. I was at the time about to give a lecture for a Santa Barbara audience so you will see the Channel Islands and the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Some details to feature: water is needed to soak the structures as well as the flames. Thus, we see in the illustration one powerful stream directed over the buildings to prevent incendiaries thrown up ahead of the flames by up-drafts, hopscotch style, from starting a fire ahead of the “front.” With a concentration of residents living on site, and training for all simply walking around the site with Fire Department personnel, the people can learn their common defense. Plus of course, the pros can be there with better advantage too. Once a year, make a festival of hosing down the landscape up wind and a few of the buildings. Break out the pumps, hoses, bar-b-que and umbrellas – let’s practice defense and celebrate fire safety and community solidarity!

Here’s where Kent Wilson puts his two cents in. I’d just met him as I was writing up this opinion piece, so I shared it with him. He teaches interior design at San Jose State University and leads the “Design and Innovation for Sustainability Cities” summer studio at the University of California, Berkeley. In his own words:

The expensive, stupid even insane way we fight fires in exurban development areas. What’s so nuts about it is the automobile dependent thinly scattered pattern of residential living that is neither really rural nor urban – but definitely hard to defend in fire prone areas.

“I like your ideas in the piece for the Chronicle [that wasn’t printed]. One thing I would add from an architectural perspective to possibly augment the scenario that you outline there is consideration of building materials. Virtually all of the houses in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa were built of plastic and fiberboard, with perhaps a bit of brick trim work. The fact that they had asphalt shingle roofs seems completely absurd in a fire zone – not to mention the pressboard and vinyl siding with tar paper and Tyvek under-layers, and plastic doors, window frames and screens. They were like giant fast-food containers strewn on that hot, windy landscape… just a matter of time before they combusted.

“In your ecocity scenario, it would be great to think in terms of terra cotta tile, slate/stone or metal roofs. These are not only fire resistant, but offer much better long-term return on ecological/resource investment. They cost more upfront, which is why short-term developer thinking doesn’t favor them. Likewise for concrete construction or stucco siding and hardwood and/or metal doors and windows. Durable, fireproof materials. These kinds of durable, repairable, reusable materials have the added benefit of a feeling of solidity and protection while evoking historical continuity.”

How do we actually build it? Well, we have the guidance of ecocity zoning maps, a tool I’ve explained over and over since the 1980s, for shifting away from sprawl to ecotropolis type urban layout. And the conventional zoning needs to pay attention to that guidance in the language of mapping provided by the ecocity zoning map. But first, we the people have to mount a serious educational effort. Take it away people!

About the author

Richard Register

Richard Register is an eco-pioneer and founder of Ecocity Builders. He lectures and consults internationally and has authored several books of illustrations and ecocity design principles. Get his latest book, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build online or directly from the author by emailing ecocity (at) igc (dot) org.