WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN TO “FIGHT” FIRE?
By Emily Schlickman and Brett Milligan
Fire is both ruly and unruly. It conforms to physical principles, yet it’s also incredibly dynamic and unpredictable. Across the world we are witnessing changes in what wildfire is, due to past and current human actions, and in tandem, fire risks are increasing and expanding. In the western United States, so are wildfire severity and frequency.
The worldview of a society is often written more truthfully on the land than in its documents.1
—Robin Wall Kimmerer and Frank Kanawha Lake
In our book, Design by Fire: Resistance, Co-Creation and Retreat in the Pyrocene (Routledge, 2023), we draw upon fieldwork, mapping, photography, interviews, and design speculation to explore fire, and the roles design might play in better stewarding it. The publication curates 27 global case studies of land-fire design. We group these examples into three overall approaches: those that resist the creative and transformative power of fire and landscape change, those that embrace and utilize fire to co-create landscapes, and those that try to retreat and minimize human intervention and control in fire-prone regions. We look closely at the geography of our home state of California, reflecting on the past and thinking through future scenarios of how it might evolve, based on the kinds of relationships we nurture with fire. Rather than serving as a book of neatly packaged solutions, it is offered as a collection of techniques and speculations to be considered, tested, and critiqued within the aggregating challenges we are falling into.
The touchstone for wilderness turns out to be an artifact of generations of human care.2
We live in the Central Valley town of Davis, where we are often enveloped in smoky air from wildfires for weeks at a time. Be it spring, summer, or fall, we may see white, papery flakes drifting down from the sky, dusting the ground with ash and making the sun appear as an ominous red ball in a thick haze. This smoke often contains toxic microparticles from housing developments and other artifacts that have been incinerated in the fires, and air like this can impact much of the state, and the states to the east of it. These fires are feral, having escaped efforts to eradicate and tame them.3 These pyric events are transforming landscapes at multiple scales—impacting plant communities, animals, air, water, and soils. They make their own weather systems and literally create new kinds of ground in their wake. They are typically larger, hotter, and more destructive, due to how we, as settlers, helped to engender them.
These novel fire conditions are not unique to the American West, as the risk and damages of wildland fires are growing around the world.4 From catastrophic bushfires in Australia to severe forest fires in France and fynbos fires in South Africa, innumerable communities and landscapes are being impacted. Today, this pyrogeography significantly affects every continent except Antarctica. As fire historian Stephen Pyne has argued, this is an age of fire marked by a shift out of the Pleistocene’s ice ages and into the hot, combustion-dominated Pyrocene.5 This geological epoch began nearly 12,000 years ago, when humans harnessed fire and began using it in ever-expanding ways: from a small wood fire to keep warm, to the intentional burning of fields and forests, to the massively scaled global mining and burning of fossil fuels, which is the literal consumptive burning of another era within our own. In the same way that the Pleistocene’s ice ages led to mass extinctions, abrupt changes in sea levels and climate, and massive shifts in the distribution and assemblies of biota, the same types of accelerated changes are happening now, but are happening due to the heating of the planet at unprecedented rates.6 This is a human-led, co-evolutionary change, driven by human desires and design schemes and their impacts. And unfortunately, we are discovering that increased burning and global warming begets more burning. The Pyrocene is only gaining in force, and the changing nature of wildfires is just one piece of this global transition.
For us, Pyne’s conception of the Pyrocene provides entry points for understanding the current human-dominated era, calling particular attention to the ways humans have used fire and combustion to alter the earth, deliberately and inadvertently. We think it also provokes more basic ontological questions of how fire is understood and how it is approached. As we observed in Yosemite, colonists considered fire to be destructive, primitive, and bad, and thus did all they could to eradicate it from the U.S.’s Western landscapes, believing this was progressive stewardship. Their understanding of fire was the opposite of Indigenous Californian people who long preceded them. Turtle Island’s First Nations understood fire as a valuable, consequential thing, and utilized it far more heavily than any other stewardship practices to sculpt these wildlands.7 Many of us tend to think of that historic usage as an instrumental tool, or technology. But that too is a situated understanding based on Western norms. For First Nations, fire was likely thought of and felt in very different ways from this and was woven into cosmologies premised on animacy and reciprocity, rather than human exceptionalism and ideologies of extractivism.8
Today we speak of “bad” fire or “good” fire, based on the sets of contextual factors that determine its behavior. There is also prescribed, cultural, and suppressed fire. And what does it really mean to “fight” fire—symbolically, culturally, materially, and physically? To many ecologists, fire is considered a keystone process in forests and other biomes.9 It has also been likened to an abiotic herbivore that consumes and physically digests landscape vegetation in binge-like fashion.10 Yet it also acts very much like a decomposer. But in the Western scientific worldview, fire (and landscapes) are not typically considered to be alive, sacred, or mythical. Rather fire is dealt with instrumentally.
Stephen Pyne observed that although our contemporary societies have all sorts of research and academic departments dedicated to the study of air, water, and soil, the only departments we have had for fire are those charged with putting them out.11 In post-colonial and post-natural worlds, fire is lacking robust research domains of its own. And where fire is researched, it tends to fall into three ontologies or paradigms of what fire is: a physical, biological, or cultural phenomenon.12 The physical paradigm understands fire as primarily a chemical reaction shaped by physical, climatic, and chemical circumstances, and is materially focused on the elemental and reactive processes of combustion. The biological paradigm approaches fire as fundamentally life-based and dependent on the growth and development of biological assemblies of organisms in landscapes, primarily plants. The cultural paradigm encounters fire as largely a social construction, emphasizing human doings and agency in determining the behavior of fire. With respect to perceived problems with fire, each paradigm tends to look to its particular focus for potential explanations and solutions.13
But fire is almost always an amalgamation of physical, biological, and cultural factors, and perhaps the best way to see that integration is to understand fire as a contextual, time-based event. Fire “synthesizes its surroundings,” and “its very character is to interact and integrate.”14 Fire is an event that appears “patchily in space and time.”15 And more specific to landscape architecture and planning, fire emerges and takes its form from the landscape in which it occurs.16
Fire moves from virtual potential to actualized material process in particular ways, based entirely on the dynamic assemblage of landscapes. Fire doesn’t slowly develop, rather it comes into existence in a flash at a particular moment in time, such as from a lightning strike or a carelessly discarded cigarette butt. But all that comes before it fully starts conditions what it will be. After ignition, the flames set about transforming the materiality of the landscape, based on interaction with the specific conditions the fire finds itself in at that specific moment. In the same way that none of us get to choose our parents, fire doesn’t get to choose its landscapes. In both cases, we develop and evolve from those formative settings and potentials, whatever they may be. This is important to consider when labeling fire as “good” or “bad,” as the characterization is more about the situation, historical context, and timing than about fire itself.
We understand and research fire as a contextual landscape event. Fire is entirely dependent on landscape conditions to become what it may, while also being transformative of the conditions from which it emerges. Thus, wildfire is a reciprocal or co-evolutionary phenomenon within the dynamic landscapes in which it happens, spanning physical, biological, and cultural domains. As a place-based experience, wildfire is as complex as its spatiotemporal setting.
With this co-creative understanding of fire and landscapes, we explore the changing behavior and effects of fire and illustrate ways of designing with it.
If the behavior of wildfire is changing, then the landscapes in which it occurs must be changing too. Historical definitions of landscape, in colonial and Western traditions, have foregrounded stability and passivity as traits, which led to sensibilities of being able to instrumentalize and control them. But within nearly all contemporary disciplines that foreground the medium of landscape—including landscape architecture—this definition has moved to one of dynamism, elasticity, and indeterminacy. There is a broad, empirical understanding that landscapes actively change, and do so unavoidably. We understand landscapes to be a diverse medium marked by migration, or patterned movement across space and time. A landscape can be said to migrate when its unique and contingent assembly of components—the materials, entities, and actors that define it—shifts such that, over time, a new assembly forms. In this way, qualitatively different landscapes can and do manifest upon a single geographic terrain.17
Landscapes never stop changing, no matter how hard humans may try to fix them in place. Rather, flows and processes within them are subject to temporal distortion, to variable slowing and acceleration as part of design intention.18 Landscapes respond to imposed constraints like these by moving differently, often mutating into surprising and undesirable manifestations. Fire is but one such actor in these multiply authored assemblies—a particularly transformative and fast-acting one. In this book, we use the term “fire-altered landscapes” to speak of landscapes where humans have significantly or radically changed their qualities by changing how fire occurs within them. These landscapes are the focus of our work, and we locate most of them in two general realms: (1) dedicated land reserves (like national parks, forestry reserves, extraction zones, and wildlands) as well as other forms of undeveloped or minimally developed land, and (2) the diverse realm of the wildland–urban interface (WUI).
Yosemite National Park is an example of the land reserve typology. As we’ve observed, Yosemite and most of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains became fire-altered landscapes as a result of decades of fire suppression, thus changing the landscape rather than preserving it. This paradox is a common one encountered in 20th-century ecological reserves, national parks, conservation areas, and landscape preservation efforts generally. Many of these efforts failed, spectacularly, by suppressing the very landscape dynamics that sustain landscape structure over time. This legacy is proving to be an extremely difficult and destructive one to rectify, and in response to these mistakes, conservation strategies have been evolving in ways that are more integrative of change and seek to work with, rather than against, dynamic, socio-ecological landscape processes.19 Today, Yosemite’s park staff are engaged in a range of proactive land-fire stewardship efforts to try to pull out of the fire suppression trap, including managing wildfires rather than suppressing them, prescribed burns, and mechanical thinning and removal of crowded trees within the state’s most famous valley, which doesn’t happen without controversy and a lawsuit.20
The other broad domain of fire-altered landscape is the wildland–urban interface, where feral flames often abound. This peripheral zone has been labeled many things in the fields of landscape architecture and planning—from “exurban”21 to “rural-urban fringe”22 to “borderlands”23—with the understanding that wildland and the built environment are not binary but are, in fact, hybridic, diverse, and intertwined.
To better understand this space, we must refashion two terms often put at odds with each other: “wilderness” and the “city.” For Europeans and American settlers, the concept of wilderness has morphed in the past 250 years, from instilling fear to instilling awe. Up until the end of the 19th century, a common belief was that wilderness had no real value to humanity. Rather, it was a source of darkness and terror. Then came Muir, Olmsted, and others, who flipped this narrative and advocated for the preservation of wilderness as a place of restorative escape, as pristine and external to human agency.24 This take on wilderness was codified in the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964.
But there is increasing understanding that wilderness, as “other,” is untenable, and is actually a “product of civilization.”25 The imposed European concept of wilderness was likely unintelligible for North America’s Indigenous nations, particularly in California, where these people had extensively tended to and shaped most of its landscapes.26 The adept landscape architecture of precolonial California was so extensive and so seamlessly integrated that most settlers could not see or detect it, or else didn’t want to, and thus fictitiously called it wilderness. Through time, these definitions of wilderness and that of the Wilderness Act have, in some ways, made their definition real by enforcing their policies and managerial separations of humans and “nature.”
In parallel, the concept of the city has also radically changed over past centuries. Historically, cities were discrete and coherent entities, with clearly defined boundaries separating civilization from what was outside of its borders. Today, though, it is quite obvious that the urban and processes of urbanization systemically extend far beyond city edges, touching nearly every part of the landscape and deeply penetrating into the territories assumed to be wilderness.27
The intermingling of wildland and the built environment has become a focus of much research interest over the past few decades. As a term, WUI first emerged in the late 1980s in the United States but was not formally incorporated into federal management practices until 2000.28 Today, while the term has been adopted across many fire-prone parts of the world, there is no universally accepted definition for it. It has been described qualitatively, in very general terms, as a space where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.”29 It has also been described quantitatively, using housing units per acre and vegetation coverage percentages as criteria.30 In examining the maps that accompany these definitions, it becomes clear that the WUI, as a condition, now extends to many seemingly unexpected places, including Olmsted’s granite cathedral of the West, Yosemite.31
Like many other liminal landscapes, this motley interface is a place of both vulnerability and opportunity. From one perspective, it provides desired access to open space, with scenic views and cleaner air. Additionally, these edge zones often provide a more affordable living option compared to high rents and property values found closer to city centers, though in places like California, this price gap is shrinking. Development in these edges accelerates habitat loss and fragmentation and supports unintended introduction of exotic species and diseases, while simultaneously promoting vehicular-dependent development. And situated on the frontline of the Pyrocene, these edge zones are highly susceptible to fire, and housing adds more fuel to burn, as well as toxins to the smoke that many of us now breathe.
DESIGNING WITH FIRE
Feral wildlands and the WUI are places where redesign can make a profound impact and where designers and landscape architects can effectively work with others to guide fire in the deepening age of the Pyrocene. But to do so, it must be approached integratively and inclusively, rather than reductively and simplistically.32 With this in mind, the following four principles have been developed: design across scales, embrace accelerated change, codesign, and advance transdisciplinarity practices.
The first principle—design across scales—is expressed through a wide range of design case studies, from regional down to the cellular, and from decades down to moments. Scale—as the spatial or temporal extent at which something is examined—is a purely conceptual design tool, a single point of reference for investigation that does not physically exist in the world. To focus on a single scale, or a limited, codified set of scales, limits what can be understood in design research. For fire adaptation, multi-scalar thinking and designing is far more informative and necessary. Different forces and processes come to the foreground at different extents of observation. Thus we fluidly jump scales within and across project case studies, and have intentionally avoided ordering them by size of intervention, given that those extents are hard to cleanly determine: for example, comparing a modular intervention at the small scale of a residence (such as “defensible space”) to large-scale land management. Categorizing these by scale would be overly reductive of the many other dependent factors, as well as the qualitative attributes of the approaches. Our work aims to expand the design toolbox to provide a diverse and variably scaled set of design techniques that can be collectively critiqued, modified, and tested to enact change.
Embracing accelerated change emphasizes the challenges and conditions presented by global warming, as well as increasing social and economic disparities driven by colonial and capitalist policies and agendas. This principle integrates increasing rates of change as a globalized given, and landscape as the elastic and responsive medium in which these altered rhythms are enacted and given form. This work promotes process-based, adaptive strategies that perform their work over time, across a chaordic string of events and situations. It favors the design of relations over objects. It promotes iterative design proposals that are committed to adaptive stewardship and care, favoring strategies that revisit past actions to assess and adjust formative design pathways.
Designing with fire is far more than a scientific or technical challenge or domain. The ways landscape fire happens or doesn’t happen are also fundamentally social and political concerns. Neither suppression nor science alone adequately addresses those concerns. Thus our third principle—codesign—focuses on fostering greater inclusivity and equity in design processes. Codesign entails bringing stakeholders and publics into design and planning processes as early as possible. These people, who might be affected by such efforts, are often excluded. Our research has sought to highlight case studies and efforts to democratize and decolonize fire design and management, and to foster environmental justice and collective social innovation, including better understanding of and respect for traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Indigenous sovereignty as potential drivers of design.
In definition, transdisciplinarity entails creative collaboration across disciplines in a manner that meaningfully integrates publics and stakeholders in that process. This work seeks to advance transdisciplinarity practices in planning and design by documenting integrative approaches to wildland fire adaptation that transcend current institutional, organizational, and research-related silos.33 Given the complexity and global scale of fire stewardship, it is clear that no single discipline or organization has all the answers to making things better, and there is an urgent need to develop effective ways to design across disciplines with the people who will be affected by such efforts. In this kind of collaborative work, we position designers as integrators and facilitators of these design efforts, testing the range and efficacy of such roles.
Emily Schlickman is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at the University of California, Davis. Brett Milligan is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis.
1 Robin Wall Kimmerer and Frank Kanawha Lake, “Maintaining the Mosaic: The Role of Indigenous Burning in Land Management,” Journal of Forestry—Washington 99, no. 11 (2001): 36–41.
2 Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014), 308.
3 A. Park Williams et al., “Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California,” Earth’s Future 7, no. 8 (2019): 892–910.
4 Matthew W. Jones et al., “Climate Change Increases the Risk of Wildfires,” ScienceBrief Review (2020): 1–3.
5 Stephen J. Pyne, The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2021).
6 Stephen J. Pyne, “The Planet Is Burning,” Aeon, accessed November 11, 2021, https://aeon. co/essays/the-planet-is-burning-around-us-is-it-time-to-declare-the-pyrocene.
7 M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2013), 3.
8 Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Anthropology of Consciousness 28, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 128–134.
9 Van R. Kane et al., “Landscape-Scale Effects of Fire Severity on Mixed-Conifer and Red Fir Forest Structure in Yosemite National Park,” Forest Ecology and Management 287 (2013): 17–31.
10 William J. Bond and Jon E. Keeley, “Fire as a Global ‘Herbivore’: The Ecology and Evolution of Flammable Ecosystems,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20, no. 7 (2005): 387–394.
11 Stephen J. Pyne, Fire: A Brief History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 187–201.
14 Pyne, The Pyrocene, 9–12.
15 Pyne, The Pyrocene, 15.
16 Pyne, The Pyrocene, 14.
17 Brett Milligan, “Landscape Migration: Environmental Design in the Anthropocene,” Places Journal (June 2015), accessed November 11, 2021, https://placesjournal.org/article/landscape-migration.
18 Brett Milligan, “Accelerated and Decelerated Landscapes,” Places Journal (February 2022), accessed October 29, 2022, https://doi.org/ 10.22269/220208.
19 For example, see: Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and Eric Higgs, Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003).
20 Thomas Fuller and Livia Albeck-Ripka, “At Yosemite, a Preservation Plan That Calls for Chain Saws,” The New York Times (July 27, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/27/us/yosemite-fires-cut-and-burn.html.
21 Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993).
22 Robin J. Pryor, “Defining the Rural-Urban Fringe,” Social Forces 47, no. 2 (1968): 202–215.
23 John R. Stilgoe, Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012).
24 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28.
26 Anderson, Tending the Wild.
27 For example, see: Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Neil J. Brenner, Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: JOVIS, 2014).
28 William T. Sommers, “The Emergence of the Wildland-Urban Interface Concept,” Forest History Today (Fall 2008): 12–18.
29 Susan M. Stein et al., Wildfire, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface (Fort Collins, Colorado: USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, January 2013), accessed September 9, 2020, https://permanent.fdlp.gov/gpo57383/rmrs_gtr299.pdf.
31 Volker C. Radeloff et al., “Rapid Growth of the US Wildland-Urban Interface Raises Wildfire Risk,” PNAS 115, no. 13 (2018): 3314–3319.
32 Richard Weller et al., “Hotspot cities: Identifying peri-urban conflict zones,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 14, no. 1 (2019): 8–19.
33 Alistair M. S. Smith et al., “The Science of Firescapes: Achieving Fire-Resilient Communities,” BioScience 66, no. 2 (2016): 130–146.