Lenses on living with wildfire: exploring the polarities of an elemental problem

Wildfires have become the new Polar bear, in that both within and beyond the popular press and media they have become emblematic of the threats that climate change presents to both people and planet. In the minds of many that take to social media to convey their thoughts on world affairs, wildfires are a menace that need eradication, if not altogether, at the very least from the places which humans have delineated for themselves. More particularly, the places where humans build homes, businesses, and memories. As with complex socio-ecological issues more generally, wildfires are commonly subject to ill-conceived assumptions, such as the idea that they are universally homogenous and negative in their behavior and impact. Though the dominant narrative of the Global North for decades, it’s a perspective that stands in sharp contrast to that of our ancient ancestors, and not merely within one or two cultures, but within every last one that is native to the fire-prone places of the world. Within these cultures, wildfire was not feared, but revered. Indeed, wildfire, and its descendant, control of fire, was considered nothing less than sacred, its role in human society was recognized as foundational, and its presence so significant as warranted the burning of eternal flames.

How and why humanity perceives of wildfire is central to how we address the problem of living with it on this, the only planet in our Solar System, and that we know of, where fire, it being a biochemical reaction, exists. Few phenomena ignite, to use a pun, such heated debates. But, though numerous, those debates invariably revolve around one of two remedial constructs. One, it being the most popular within the Global North of present and of recent past, is that of resisting wildfire. Within this approach, but for a few augmentations, we carry on with both business and building as usual, simply adding or subtracting this or that feature in an effort to resist the many risks that wildfires can present. The other, of which the origins are ancient and, within indigenous communities native to fire-prone places an approach that still persists today, is that of building resilience to wildfire. Put another way, of working with wildfire, not against it.

As with the workings of the 21st century at large, the spatial temporal distribution of these distinctly polarised approaches speaks to world history, and in particular to the impact of the birth of Christianity on the many fire cultures of the ancient Western, and later, wider world: to the extinguishing of sacrificial fire. Bringing context to that statement, though today those formally investigating the workings of the natural world typically share their insights through the publication of scientific papers, articles, and presentations, within the vast expanse of human history these are novel approaches. For the greater part of human history — from at latest, the Palaeolithic to, within Europe, the death of the Classical age, and elsewhere the advent of European colonialism, humans shared such knowledge through the telling of stories and the practice of rituals, which still continues in contemporary indigenous cultures. Analyses of the narrative structure, symbolism, and evolution of Origin of Fire myths from several ancient cultures reveals that their authors had what would today be construed as scientific understanding of fire’s role in ecological systems — of fire cycles and behaviour more generally, and of the role of fire in the evolution of humankind. But, deities having been used as narrative devices within religious doctrine, as discussed by Catherine Nixey in her book The Darkening Age, through the lens of early Christians, these mythologies, like the rituals and artefacts which, be they fire temples, statues, altars, or other, were considered idolatrous, and thus to be destroyed by any means possible. Hence, today, we are left with mere fragments of the knowledge that was acquired by early humans over not mere centuries, but many thousands of years. Worse still, all such fragments as evaded destruction were subjected to systemic and perversely bias interpretations until, in the 19th century, a small, but ultimately highly influential collective of scientists, anthropologists, and other scholars and academics started to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and in that process, questioned Christian dogma as relates to its workings. However, as has become much clear of late, the relationship between science, of discovery more widely, and society is anything but linear, and especially so when new findings challenge preconceived ideas of our understanding of our place in the world and its workings.

Few fields illustrate the disconnect between what science reveals to be the actual workings of the natural world and some perceptions thereof as starkly as architecture. We build what we think, and in the early 20th century, despite the fact that the likes Darwin, Wallace, and others had already shown that the non-human world resides in a state of perpetual change shaped by both internal and external forces and events, as opposed to states of stasis, Modernism nonetheless emerged. Whereas, every abiotic and biotic system — meteorological, geological, hydrological, biological, and so on — adapts across time and space, Modernist buildings were, but for very few examples, built in expectation that a building could and should adopt a state of constancy ad infinitum. These buildings were largely considered a testament to human ingenuity, and to our design, engineering, and construction prowess. Whereas, historically, humanity’s most ambitious constructions stood in reverence to powers which, supernatural or otherwise, were perceived as being more powerful and significant than we mortals, thus deserving of our collective humility, respect, and admiration, these tower block temples worshipped one entity, and one entity only: us, humans. Standing sterile and stripped of all but the barest features and functions, buildings became inhospitable to all but a few hardy animal species: no more bats in belfries, bees in the attic, or birds nesting under the eaves. Wittingly or otherwise, this was, at best, architecture serving nature an eviction notice, and at worst a death sentence, as sadly became the case for the now many millions of birds that have died in collisions with glass-clad tower blocks. So-say, Modernism constituted an efficient and economical solution, but all too few asked for whom? Decade upon decade, few working within the built environment so much as thought to consider where and how the materials and components with which tower blocks are built came from, let alone such things as how their extraction impacted on far flung ecosystems and communities. Yet, such was the appeal of these typically tall and often shiny building typologies that within decades they had spread far and wide, and with so little variance in their design, materiality, and construction that they could have virtually come off a factory production line: Modernism and its architectural descendants had colonized much of the built world.

Had one school of architectural thought really fitted all, more specifically, all climatic, wider environmental, and social scenarios, and done so in a way that promoted not hindered biodiversity while also compromising the integrity of Earth’s wider systems, all well and good. But, it didn’t and still doesn’t. Yet, look to the literature on ‘future cities’ and, by and large, you’ll see images of copious tall, shiny, and essentially Modernist buildings. More recently, some of those proposals cloak those tall and shiny buildings in plants and promote them as being ‘green’. But, plants or no plants, by and large these buildings mark not a point of departure to a ‘new paradigm’, let alone a sustainable one, but the replication of an old one, and of the thinking that created it. Like moths to flames, it seems, many humans show an innate propensity for embracing that which is, at best, not what it seems, i.e. that which, though presented as remedying problems that are both critical and complex, fails to support those claims in the face of anecdotal evidence, let alone when held up to empirically-testable methods. For example, some suggest that plants on balconies constitute ‘vertical forests’, the inference being that forests amount to no more than collections of trees. But, of course, a forest is anything but a mere collection, for a forest is system, an ‘ecosystem’, of which the various species members operate not as individuals, but as inter-species communities. Break down those communities and the subterranean, surface, and canopy networks that connect them and what you have is not a system, but its antithesis — disparate entities unable to exchange information and material, from water and nutrients and much more. We may not be able to see tree and shrub root and mycorrhizal systems from above, but we certainly can see them with a bit of digging. In some ways, the matter that the most fundamental workings of those systems are not accommodated for in balcony, other vertical, and roof top gardens is symbolic of just how superficial some architectural and wider built environment enquiries really are: the architectural equivalent of gift wrapping a problem, rather than solving it.

Connectivity is central to resilience, be that resilience in the ecological, urban, or societal sense. However, this is just one of many levels on which many architectural and urban proposals have fallen at the very first scientific evaluation hurdle. Other common issues include a general absence of understanding of the fact that whereupon you introduce flora to a building schema you introduce new risks. Consequently, though vertical gardens, green roofs, and shrubs and other foliage on balconies have become poster-children of sustainability, few architects and urban designers have acknowledged the fire, disease, and other serious risks these features can present, be that in their texts, images, and, in the worst instances, technical specifications. Extend analyses beyond the buildings themselves and to the supply chain from which their materials are sourced and a yet bigger can of worms is opened, including as relates to the now global and urgent problems of illegal sand and reef mining, of deforestation of old growth forests, and of unsustainable conversation of land-use from virgin biomes of multiple variants to monoculture forestry. Though, in and of themselves, these issues worsen critical environmental and social issues, their collective impacts are yet further compounded by the matter that ideological elitism remains rampant in architecture. The architecture and wider built environment industries have yet to so much as reconcile inequalities within and of the same cultural communities [i.e. address the issues of gender and race inequality], let alone between communities of whom the worldviews are fundamentally different [i.e. of different religions, beliefs, and ideologies at large]. Though efforts are being made, statistics make clear those efforts fall far short. But, architects and urban designers that tout Modernism cloaked in green wallpaper and baubles are part of a much wider community that, for all their often very good intentions, propagate proposals of which the sustainability credentials don’t just fall short of any reasonably high mark, but unwittingly perpetuate problems of the serious kind.

Prior to European colonialism, the architectures of the Global South were largely fit for local purpose. The challenge of coexisting with natural hazards had already been solved, be it the building of villages on sticks to overcome seasonal flooding; transportable homes and other structures built to be lifted to safety upon the onset of a cyclone or other environmental threat; passive cooling, ventilation, and rainwater harvesting to overcome the effects of heatwaves and drought; mitigation of the risk of ignition by wildfire through features including steep roofs, defensive space, and literal firewalls; structures built to move with, not against the forces of earthquakes and thus persist through seismic activity; and much more besides. Common traits of vernacular architectures globally include temporary and pop-up structures; use of biological, local, and abundant materials; high repairability and/or replaceability; social construction by family and/or local community members; sensitivity to changing environmental conditions; and codification of information on building logic and codes within both building practices and in architectural design, interior and exterior décor, and motifs. Nonetheless, numerous recent publications have falsely stated these and other ancient concepts to be ‘new’, ‘radical’, and birthed from the minds of natives of the Northern Hemisphere of this past several decades.

Though, of late, some western authors have acknowledged the origin of these and other attributes of indigenous and vernacular architectures, the over-arching publishing narrative nonetheless continues to revolve around the idea that the Global North is the engine room of ‘sustainable innovation’ within the built environment. Furthermore, some publications on indigenous and vernacular architectures have, in effect, sought, wittingly or otherwise, to commodify these architectures without considering how their custodians — the descendants of the architecture’s authors — may benefit from the process. Though cross-fertilization of design, engineering, material, and other intellectual concepts from one community to another has been a catalyst for building innovation over epochs, it’s arguably wrong for intellectual property, which is what, ethically if not legally, architectural and other ideas constitute, be used without the permission, let alone remuneration of its custodians, as might otherwise be called its owners. Yet, not only are indigenous and vernacular architectural concepts being appropriated in the absence of remuneration of their custodians, but it’s all too rare for those custodians to be invited to participate in conversations that explore how the concepts authored by their ancestors may be further researched and developed. Put more succinctly, some Global Northerners are still stealing from the South, only this time the raping and pillaging is of ideas not lands. In this, the ‘Information Age’, the value of those ideas is not insignificant and thus the act economically as well as culturally damaging.

While low-rise not high-rise buildings dominate fire-prone wild, peri-urban and urban places, they too typically exhibit largely Modernist thinking in their design and construction, as do the building codes and policies that govern their existence. Within this architectural, urban design, and planning mindset, engineering-based solutions are preferred: a fire break here, an ember guard there. The bigger the threat, the bigger the proposed resistance effort, thus the budget. Resistance advocates typically believe that when this approach fails that failure is a direct consequence of under-funding, so-say, more money would have solved the problem. But is it, and will ours really be the capacity to resist wildfires of such intensities as enables them to cremate virtually all in their path? In a sense that question is academic, in that when wildfire is spreading as fast as… wildfire, if resistance is our only strategy, and building that resistance necessitates ever bourgeoning budgets at a time when many central and local governments are increasingly cash-short, it’s only a matter of time before that strategy eventually comes unstuck. Not least if good money is thrown after bad. How then, might humanity reconcile the problem of living with wildfire, and more particularly wildfires of the kind that’s fast engulfing whole towns and communities in flames about the Mediterranean and Temperate climate regions of the world? Could the answer really be as simple as adopting indigenous and vernacular architectural approaches which, archaeology evidences have stood the test of time since long before the advent of civilisation and the permanency of place that came with it? In theory, “yes”, in practice “no”, because for all their resilience to wildfire in the locales in which these various ancient architectural approaches emerged, it’s neither practical, nor for many, appealing to live in the likes of wickiups and other simple structures that have been built to seasonally burn, thereon rebuilt time and again. However, though lacking scalability in their form, in philosophical and, in turn, design principle, they are anything but. Indeed, they constitute a veritable wealth of insight, understanding, and inspiration: a resilience manifesto.

Wildfires come in not one form, but in several. Those forms are, in turn, a product of not one, but of many factors, including, among other things, regional hydrology, topography, seasonal humidity and temperature, fuel [plant] moisture levels, densities and distribution, and wind patterns and strength. In some regions these factors combine to create frequent, but usually low-intensity fires due to limited fuel availability. In other places, they combine to create less frequent, but far more intense fires. In other places still, we find hybrids of these wildfire archetypes. But, in all these places the effects of wildfire are neither linear nor lateral. For example, among other factors, changes in the landscape and in wind direction and speed create ‘mosaics’ in the burn scars that wildfires leave behind, i.e. burned and unburned places sitting side by side. Making matters yet more complex still, wildfires burn at not one, but several different levels — in some biomes they burn through the ground or the surface, in others they burn through the canopy, and the list goes on.

However, wildfires are not merely curated by external factors, but by their own internal physics, which enable, among other things, fire spotting, wherein, through the process of convection, embers rise-up above the fire, to then be distributed up to 2 miles from the fire front. All these and other things combine to shape how quickly and hot a wildfire burns, where it goes, and how. The above integrating not one field of fire science, but many, and each fast-developing thanks to an array of new and emerging technologies including satellite and aerial monitoring, artificial intelligence, and big data, it’s understandable that all too many have under-estimated the sheer complexity of addressing the various challenges that wildfire presents. In a world in which social media has propagated a public penchant for soundbites, bullet-points and equally succinct textual and audio-visual summaries, understanding wildfire requires a depth and breadth of attention span far beyond such narrow bandwidths. Indeed, even long reads, such as this, can skim no more than the scientific surface.

We often hear or read the term, ‘the highest on record’. What’s rarely made clear in discussions and articles about wildfire activity is the duration of that record. As a rule, ‘on record’ refers only to a period of decades, that being the period since scientific means of analyses were first devised and installed. Occasionally the record is the term of living, anecdotal memory or otherwise. In some instances, it extends to another mode of formal or informal recording, such as writings that record ocular and other observations. But, these are not the only ‘records’ of past wildfire and other events, for ‘Nature’ has not one, but several self-organizing modes of record keeping, including those found in tree rings, ice and mud cores, and stalactites and stalagmites. But, the longest by far is the fossil record, which as relates to wildfires dates back some 420 million years — to when the very first fires occurred on Earth. Thanks to the fossil record, we know that wildfire behavior can become many times more extreme than became manifest during the Quaternary — that being the period in which our genus evolved — let alone of geological late, the Holocene. For example, during the Carboniferous, when oxygen levels peaked somewhere between 31–35%, wildfires burned with a combustibility, thus ferocity, unseen ever since. Though a rise of some 160% in Earth’s atmospheric oxygen levels isn’t likely any time soon, the sum of the science makes much clear that fire ages come and go, and every indicator is pointing to now being the advent of the next.

Historical fire records aren’t the only thing we can learn from looking to the nature world. The fictitious mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm once said, ‘Life finds a way’, but it actually finds many ways, which is why biological organisms are so very diverse — biodiverse. Plants and animals that have adapted to live with wildfire have an array of both physical and behavioral traits that enable them to mitigate the risks, while exploiting the opportunities, the latter of which includes accessing the abundance of resource opportunities that wildfires redistribute, including access to nutrients, to light, and to space. However, the distribution of these traits is not ubiquitous. Species that have evolved to live with frequent, but low intensity wildfire tend have some traits, and species that have evolved to live with infrequent, but high intensity wildfires others. Each species selects the traits most likely to enable persistence within the parameters of the historical fire regime to which they are native. There being several systems by which species that have evolved to live with wildfire can be classified, and the wider field of fire ecology still fast evolving, the process of understanding plant and animal persistence to wildfire is a work in progress.

By triangulating data from across different studies and disciplines, three fundamentally different plant persistence strategies can be mapped, this being an approach explored within Panarchistic Architecture — the first architecture paradigm to explore architectural and urban resilience to wildfire through the mimicry of the biochemistries, behaviors, and relationships of plants evolved to live with wildfire. Though the paradigm’s principles and practice have evolved from the study of biotic and abiotic systems, they parallel those found in indigenous and vernacular architectures, this being a consequence of the fact that the latter were likewise born of lengthy observation of the natural world and its complex workings over time and space. One such parallel is heterogeneity in the materiality, structure, and context of architectural structures, which stems from authoring designs to the environmental specifics of site. Another is building with natural local materials which, upon ignition, are safely reabsorbed into the environment, thus circular in their design — wildfire as a catalyst for both architectural and urban, and environmental renewal. Further common traits found between indigenous design for wildfire and the principles of Panarchistic Architecture include prioritizing the protection of that which sustains the integrity of ecological and other natural local and global systems above the conservation of architectural structures, or components thereof. Within this construct the emphasis is on material and information systems, and more specifically, on system processes, as opposed to the things — the buildings — those processes produce. While the research and practice of this new architecture mode necessitates the utilization of state of the science data, tools, and approaches, it’s just the latest in a very long design tradition — copying the forms and the functions already prototyped by other species.

As when seeking solutions to problems more generally, ours is the choice of whether to take a purist or pluralist approach. The former involves working in silos through one disciplinary lens, and to a typically pre-defined end-goal. It’s an approach that facilitates typically simplistic means of evaluation of the credibility of a design or other concept — a list of boxes ticked here, of immediate impacts evaluated there. Whereas, the pluralist approach involves working across two or, more usually, more disciplinary lenses, and to the often several end-goals the different disciplines evidence to be necessary. Whether trans, inter, multi, cross, or anti disciplinary, working across disciplines requires researchers and practitioners being open to other ways of understanding problems and in turn, of solving them. Whereas the purist approach involves prioritising one approach over another, problem-solving pluralism involves reconciling the differences between two or more approaches. Consequently, when stripped back to its barest bones, the Purist vs. Pluralism debate is about relationships — about how one discipline relates to another, how institutions relate to one another, how people relate to one another, and how cultures relate to one another. Addressing conflict in relationships is typically a difficult and sometimes lengthy process, and resolving the conflicts that lie at the heart of debates over how we live with wildfire is no different.

When seeking to reconcile our relationship with wildfire we need consider that, just as when reconciling relationships between people, we can’t achieve that if we keep fighting. We also need to recognize that reconciliation requires respect, which as relates to wildfires is respect for the role they play in sustaining the species that have evolved to live with them, and with that, respecting that like a many other ‘wild’ things that humanity seeks to eradicate from the places and spaces it takes for its own, they have a right to exist too. That right sits at the apex of many of the now mounting global problems we face, be that the right of a particular species, such as a wolf, to exist in a particular place, the right of a meteorological event, such as a flood to occur in a particular place, or the right of a refugee fleeing catastrophe to move to a particular place. Since the advent of civilization, and possibly before, humans have been delineating this or that space for this or that people. It’s a process we’ve repeated over and again, and at great cost, that cost being, among other things, wars.

The boundaries we draw are meaningful only to us - only to humans. They mean nothing to the innumerable entities of the natural world. In that sense, they are figments of our imagination. Yet we hold to those boundaries, dearly. So dearly that it seems that sometimes, and often in the fields of architecture, urban design, and the wider built environment professions, we struggle to decipher sustainability fact from sustainability fiction. Whether relating to the problem of living with wildfire, or any other problem we face there are many and extraordinary possible solutions, but most only become visible if you take the time and effort look through not one but many lenses. If you only like what you see you probably aren’t looking through enough lenses. Truly paradigmatic shifts involve a shift in perspective, which in turn involves a shift in values. Those seeking to find genuinely game changing sustainability ideas need embrace that challenge and the thinking that goes with it.

Image: Rhea Fire, Oklahoma, US in 2018, taken aboard Sentinel and processed by Pierre Markuse.

This essay is one of an open access series of works including essays, interviews, ebooks, pamphlets, online discussions, and more that are intended to provoke discussion around both the problem of living with wildfire and of issues of sustainability in the built environment more generally.

Visit www.panarchiccodex.com for more information.




Melissa Sterry, PhD, chartered design scientist, systems theorist, biofuturist, and serial founder inc. Bioratorium®, Bionic City®, and Panarchic Codex®.

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Melissa Sterry, PhD, chartered design scientist, systems theorist, biofuturist, and serial founder inc. Bioratorium®, Bionic City®, and Panarchic Codex®.

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