In California’s wine country, a landscape architect helps farmers and residents prepare for wildfires.
By Jennifer Reut
Having grown up in Northern California, Ann Baker remembers the region’s wine country before it was dotted with tasting rooms and destination spas. Baker often visited her grandparents, the Solaris, at Larkmead Vineyards, the historic winery and vineyards that have been in her family since the mid-20th century. “As a kid, I always was going out to Larkmead because that was their home, and we always had big family gatherings there and played games on the lawn and had ravioli for Thanksgiving, and then the turkey and everything else,” she says.
After Baker’s parents inherited the winery, they began to rebuild and expand the family business. For Baker, a landscape architect and the founder of Ann Baker Landscape Architecture, the renewal brought opportunities. Over the years she worked on several projects around Larkmead, including restoration work along the Napa River and Selby Creek.
“It was a big job,” she says, and she did it with about a dozen neighbors from across the valley reach. That collaborative approach, forged in the years when the region was a small community of primarily agricultural family businesses, might explain why landscape-focused planning—first for drought, now for wildfires—has been successful.
Surviving Fires And Drought
Since 2017, Baker says, a series of intense wildfires has damaged both the public health and the economy of the region, which is dependent on wineries. “It’s just brought home to a lot of people here that we haven’t been managing our natural systems successfully,” she says. Baker says the Glass Fire in 2020 started just up the road from Larkmead and burned in a U shape around the winery. “It actually burned up the river and the creek, [which] acted like wicks. We had a lot of burnt trees on the river.”
Because of that fire and others like it, Baker says, people in the region are more open to new ideas. “People are really getting ready for change; they’re looking for it, they’re asking for it.”
Napa Valley has been in a drought for two years, with the last year being the driest since the late 1800s. There’s more interest not just in planting for drought tolerance, but also in designing with native plants for pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds. With the recent series of devastating fires, residents who stay must figure out how to overlay those strategies onto what Baker terms “firesafe landscapes”—designs that reduce the wildfire fuel in a garden and separate it both horizontally and vertically.
In a firesafe garden, the shrubs are separated from the trees so that the heavier fuels are 30 or 40 feet apart, Baker says. Trees are kept from overhanging a house, and the typical foundational shrubs are a nonstarter. The first five feet from the house are considered a no-go planting zone, excepting succulents or other moisture-rich plants. Hedging, which brings out tiny, twiggy growth, is something to avoid because that’s also a source of fuel.
For drought tolerance, Baker says, “You want to do 85 percent low-water or adapted plants, but you’re okay with 10 to 15 percent moderate water-use plants. You can put those moderate water-use plants against your house and have those areas against your house be very ‘clean and green.’ You would remove plants that aren’t healthy and prune out deadwood.”
These criteria are part of a broader policy to strengthen wildfire prevention and resilience in areas designated as wildland–urban interface (WUI) zones. Within a WUI there are areas of local and state responsibility, and Baker, who is on Petaluma’s newly formed Climate Action Commission, can rattle off with ease the varying spatial requirements for high-, moderate-, and low-hazard WUI zones in her state. After doing a handful of demonstration gardens for firesafe landscapes, Baker was hired by the Sonoma–Marin Saving Water Partnership, a regional alliance of water districts, to develop design templates that homeowners could use to comply with the regulations.
The designs, called Water Smart Landscape Design Templates, are a complete package that includes renderings, concept drawings, construction documents, plant lists, and cost estimates. They are varied and flexible enough that homeowners with different tastes and architectural preferences can adapt them. Baker’s firm also developed a maintenance manual, and together with the templates they are available for free on the Sonoma–Marin Saving Water Partnership website.
Helping The Community
After more than 5,000 people lost homes and other buildings in the Tubbs Fire, Baker says there was a strong push to support residents who were trying to rebuild. “We did three community workshops, and we looked at designs that met these standards but that also met people’s needs,” Baker says. “We made it so that they could essentially redline the plans, take them to the permit agency in Santa Rosa, and get their permits without spending another $10,000 that they didn’t have on landscape design.”
Landscape designers and landscape architects also volunteered at community workshops where residents came in with their plans and got assistance with modifying the templates. The permitting agencies also attended so residents could walk their plans over to them. Baker estimates about 40 percent of the new homes permitted in Santa Rosa used plans developed from the templates.
For the wineries, which contribute tens of billions of dollars to local economies, Baker says fire and drought are just part of the climate change issues. “This year was just sailing along [with] this beautiful harvest, and then two weeks ago, we had 108-degree heat—that wasn’t just one day or two, it was seven or eight,” she says. “I think that’s a challenge, speaking to any farmer or landscape architect in the region,” she added. “When you’re planting in July and all of a sudden that happens, it’s not as successful.”
The fact that the topography of the valley and the changes in climate require cooperation from vineyards and agricultural entities that might otherwise compete for resources is part of what local climate organizations are trying to get across. “The people on the top of the hill are the beneficiaries of the people on the side of the hill. And then the people on the top of the hill are [on] the evacuation route for the people trying to get up the side of the hill,” Baker explains. “They really both have needs that they can best address when they work together.
“We’re trying to get the whole Napa Valley to speak up as a wine-growing region. [We’re] just starting to work more on that now, trying to get more unified voices, calling for more significant change from wine growers.”