Interview: Fire at the Doorstep

The Los Angeles-based designer Greg Kochanowski researches wildfire mitigation close to home.

By Timothy A. Schuler

Greg Kochanowski documented the loss of his own home in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which destroyed 110 of 217 houses in Seminole Springs, California. Photo by GK.

Earth is a water planet. It is also, as Stephen J. Pyne has written, a fire planet. The Earth “has held fires as long as plants have lived on land,” Pyne recently wrote in Yale Environment 360. To remove fire from landscapes that have coevolved with it “can be as ruinous as putting fire into landscapes that have no history of it. The fires we don’t see—the fires that should be there and aren’t—are an index of ecological loss, like imposing a drought on a normally lush landscape.”

Greg Kochanowski knows well the losses that fires and their absence bring. As the studio director of the multidisciplinary design firm RIOS, Kochanowski had been investigating the effects of urbanization on the fire-adapted landscapes of Southern California for more than three years when the 2018 Woolsey Fire destroyed his home in Seminole Springs, California.

Now, Kochanowski has collected his research, as well as his experience of the Woolsey Fire, in The Wild, published last fall as part of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design’s pamphlet series. The book explores the urban periphery of Los Angeles and the economic, cultural, and political pressures that have resulted in the city’s persistent peri-urban expansion and, consequently, the inevitability of ever larger, ever more deadly wildfires. Landscape Architecture Magazine spoke to Kochanowski shortly after the book’s release. His reVISION ASLA 2020 panel, “Fire Across the Pacific: Australia, California, and the Climate Crisis,” is available online.

LAM: What gave birth to the line of inquiry you’re tracing in the book?

Kochanowski: It was really the Rising Currents book that came out of the MoMA exhibition [Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, 2011]. That was the first time that I had seen the global design community using their expertise to solve much broader problems. I was really inspired by it, but I was living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has issues with sea-level rise, of course, but there was a lack of theorizing about the West. It was a very East Coast discussion. In the West, I was experiencing fires, and then it would rain and you would have floods, and then landslides, and it happened every single year. It was just this cycle. After a few years, I thought, no one’s talking about this. So, I began to look at the fire cycle, and had a session at the ASLA conference in 2018 on some of that initial research. And then my house burned down. Then I got really interested in fire.

A series of maps of the Santa Monica Mountains explores the relationship between topography, ecology, historic wildfire, and more. Image courtesy GK.

LAM: In the book, you write about Los Angeles and its relationship to wilderness and specifically the wildland–urban interface. Talk a little bit about why Los Angeles is unique in this regard.

Kochanowski: L.A. has the longest perimeter of wildland–urban interface anywhere in the world. I think what’s interesting about that is you are taking the urban fabric of an international city and overlaying that directly on top of wild areas. It’s not just an overlay of people on the land, but an overlay of one ecosystem onto another ecosystem. If you think about the cultural, economic, political ecosystems overlapping with the chaparral and insect and wildlife ecosystems that exist there currently, I think it forces the issue that we need to rethink how we occupy the land.

Los Angeles’s history, in general, is a disregard for the environment in which it exists. L.A. was founded on bringing water from the Colorado [River], bringing electricity in from miles away, which is why we have these problems of wildfire to begin with. From a resource standpoint, it’s a real siphoning entity. [But] fire is not something that humans have brought to this territory. It has blown through the Santa Monica Mountains, and blown through Simi Valley, for centuries. These landscapes are fire-adapted. Fire was utilized to manage agriculture and tender the landscape. The development of the National Park System led to the [decimation] of Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge of how you live in these fire-adapted landscapes. In disregarding that history, you’re opening yourself up to the problems we currently see. As we begin to think through possible adaptive strategies, we have to think much more deeply and much more broadly in terms of how we understand the territory we’re in. We’re not going to solve it with just technology or with just architecture.

LAM: It’s interesting when you think about it from a cultural perspective. The Dutch are seen as experts to be consulted, whereas the tribes of California are seen as having nothing to offer.

Kochanowski: I think there is a growing understanding [among] scientists and ecologists of the value of Indigenous culture and knowledge. The question is, what’s in it for them? There needs to be a way in which we work to rebuild those cultures. It’s not just, “Thank you so much for your ways of thinking. We’re still going to push you aside.”

What’s interesting is, much as New Orleans had the Netherlands, California has a history with Australia. Australian firefighters come over and help fight fires, and we trade knowledge. And what they have that we don’t is they have integrated Aboriginal and Indigenous people into fire prevention at the policy level. We have not done that in the States. Trying to foster that partnership a little bit more could be very useful in trying to rethink these problems in California and the West.

LAM: Much of what architects and landscape architects have done with regard to wildfire has been defensive. There are guides on how to plant fire-retardant landscapes, for instance. But you’re taking a very different approach in this book, addressing everything from energy infrastructure to mudslides. What, in your mind, is the designer’s role at this stage of the game?

Kochanowski: We’re trained to synthesize information, find relationships between things, and envision a future that didn’t exist prior. In that sense, what this book tries to do is what Rising Currents did, which is take policy and science and envision a new future. As a designer, you need to understand the underlying systems that form the environments that we see currently, and then you can begin to hack into that to find other outcomes, ways of tweaking those policies, utilizing and harnessing science to find [alternative] futures. The studies in the book try to do that. The speculations sought to really engage issues of land use, land ownership, habitat, material resources, and economic systems—systems that operate at a scale beyond the house and the yard.

Kochanowski proposes urban-scale landscape infrastructures that could mitigate the threat of debris flows and mudslides. Image courtesy GK.

One of the issues with fire is the heat; you have drought, which dries out the plants and dries out the soil. You have soil that really can’t foster life, and so a fire just rages right through it. Firebreaks are usually cut through a forest so that you have a fuel break between one side of the forest and the other, but a lot of the fires we have in Southern California are ember-driven, not fuel-driven, so you can’t just have a fuel break. You need a territory that could become a buffer. So you think of other kinds of firebreaks—conditioning the soil through urban compost, maybe creating agricultural tracts that run as broad firebreaks within certain territories, because then the soils there are mostly moist, and they have extra economic and cultural benefits.

LAM: In the book, you propose a number of speculative interventions, such as “debris sheds” and “right-of-way washes.” What are these interventions responding to as a design problem?

Kochanowski: We all know what a watershed is. Debris sheds are similar. There’s a tendency [in Los Angeles] to build on alluvial fans because they have amazing views of the ocean, but that’s really where [all the debris] is coming through. The debris sheds idea came from trying to rethink zoning in the mountains, where you might have nondeveloped areas where debris could come through. That opens up wildlife corridors, open space for people. Then you have a gradation of development based on how debris is moving through the landscape.

Currently, in areas adjacent to the San Gabriel Mountains, the streets act like gutters for mud and debris. As we begin to think through the road infrastructure of Los Angeles in general—meaning, do we have more public transportation? Do we become less dependent on the car? Does work-from-home take hold with people actually traveling less?—can we rethink the infrastructure we have and build the defense into it? The road knows that it will accept debris. Can we design it in a way that that is part of the understanding of the infrastructure? That it accommodates people, accommodates cars, and accommodates debris, which then accommodates stormwater and habitat and open space. You could begin to marry all of those things up into an infrastructural system, a kind of a “right-of-way wash,” if you will, that accommodates that multivalent nature.

LAM: I want to talk about the Woolsey Fire, if you’re comfortable with it. You lost your home to the fire in 2018. What was that experience like and how did it inform the book?

Kochanowski: It was terrifying. It’s just one of those things in life where you say, “That will never happen to me.” It happened on a Thursday, November 8th. My wife was at home with our daughter, and I was teaching. At that point, the fire had started in Simi Valley, which, if you don’t know Los Angeles, is 25, 30 miles north of us.

My wife heard that it had started. The Santa Ana winds were really blowing, and the humidity had dropped to, like, zero. So, she was keeping an eye on it. We have fires in Simi Valley all the time. For some reason this time, my wife said, “Okay, we’re going to start packing.”

I came home. The fire had not jumped the freeway yet, but you could see it from the freeway when we left. We drove out of the mountains and headed to Burbank to try to get as far away as we possibly could. We found out later that it jumped around 5:00 in the morning. It’s devastating, and it’s especially hard when you have a child, who at the time was 12. It’s a very hard thing to get your head around. A couple of weeks later, we were able to go back. The thing that struck me the most was the scale of the devastation. It was sublime; you just couldn’t get your head around it. It was so enormous, and seeing aerial photographs of the burn scars later, it’s incomprehensible. It’s a loss of a kind of basic orientation, an understanding of your place in the world.

Debris flows following Southern California’s Thomas Fire in 2018. These flows tend to be historically repetitive, as evidenced by an absence of mature oak trees. Image courtesy GK.

The thing that came out of it, though, was that it revealed that these are not abstract exercises. I did the ASLA session in October [“Fire/Flood/Slide: The Other Impacts of Climate Change”], and three weeks later, we had the fire. It was this sharp line between abstract thinking and it [suddenly] being very visceral, very real, and very personal. The work went from a project to—and this might sound hyperbolic—to a life mission. Not to compare it even remotely to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but that was the thing that popped into my head initially. A bunch of mothers lose their sons and daughters, and they form a whole movement. It felt that urgent. Like, “Why aren’t we doing something about this?” When you ask what initiated the book, that was the fuse that was lit: “Let’s get something out there we can start to have a dialogue around.”

LAM: You have a unique living situation, being in a cooperative community. At the same time, I’m sure the specter of a future fire is hard to deal with. Was it hard to make the decision to rebuild?

Kochanowski: It’s hard and it’s not. It’s hard for the reasons you say. “Am I really going to rebuild there? We just had a fire.” But the dilemma for a lot of folks is, where else are you going to go? Most people who live adjacent to wildlands are lower-income or middle-income. They’re not wealthy people. Like Paradise, California. Where else are those people going to go, except for the land that they own back in Paradise? No one else is going to buy that land.

In addition to financial considerations, it’s a connection to the land. My wife and I have lived in the Santa Monica Mountains since 1999. We feel a real bond with the landscape. Our daughter is in school; that’s where she grew up. We have a history there. [Rebuilding] was a way to get our lives back to normal as quickly as we could.

The first thing we did was plant a tree in our yard. Yes, it’ll take a little while. But we’ll get there. Again, these are fire-adapted landscapes. You see things coming back. You see laurel sumac. You see coastal oaks that survived the fire. You see all of these things coming back because they’re used to being burned. I think everybody has the feeling that it’s not what it was, and it will not be what it was, but maybe together, one by one, we can make it something new.

Timothy A. Schuler is a contributing editor at the magazine. His writing on design and the environment has appeared in Curbed, Places Journal, Metropolis, and more.

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