It’s Getting Hot in Here: Applied Firewise Design for the West

Over the last several years, the memory of the glorious Colorado summer has given way to a new reality – a smoky, dry, hot and at times inhospitable climate.

For the 6th year in a row, July has reached the highest temperatures on record and extreme weather events have become more common. In Colorado and the greater American West, this means unprecedented wildfire seasons with hotter temperatures and longer burn times. As landscape architects working in this context, we strive to understand these climate factors and the history of each  environment to make collective choices that help mitigate the most extreme risks, educate users, and enhance ecological and community health.

Adapting to Altered Succession

In the 1800’s, with the influx of new settlers searching for gold amidst the mountains, Colorado’s logging industry boomed to support the territory’s rapid expansion. As a result, large swaths of forests were clear cut, creating an imbalance in the natural succession of  the forests. Our woodlands have since grown back thicker, more homogenous, and more flammable. Add to the mix unprecedented development of the wild-urban interface (WUI) and this makes for intense fire hazard potential to local ecosystems and communities. (For many mountain projects this means we employ adaptive design and maintenance practices (often referred to as ‘defensible space’) in an effort to reintroduce balance, biodiversity, and resilience to mountain ecologies.

 

Designing for Wildfire in our Mountain Projects

When designing in wildfire prone areas, we collaborate closely with local fire experts to employ the most informed and up-to-date practices. Each project must take into consideration its specific context, including density, specific vegetation types, slope, aspect, wind direction, hydrology and general forest health. We rely on local experts with intimate knowledge of these areas to reach the best design solution.

Wildbear Nature Center at Mud Lake

Wild Bear is an ecological education center and non-profit located in  Nederland, Colorado, at 8,200 feet above sea level at the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. In collaboration with Arch11 and Civitas, Superbloom is designing their new nature center at Mud Lake Open Space on a formerly logged site that has regrown densely with lodgepole pines. Based on recommendations from local fire Marshal, Rik Henrickson, we are  designing an immersive and exploratory outdoor experience for visitors that incorporates the history, role, and effects of wildfire. The nature center building by Arch11  is designed with metal cladding for optimal fire safety and as a “defensible building”, while our work in the landscape balances aesthetic and ecological objectives with firewise design strategies. 

  • “Breaking” Fire through Form – Strategically designing elements of the landscape to double as fire breaks can make it harder for flames to jump and move freely, dampening the rate of the burn. At Wild Bear, the circulation network and the open amphitheater create these breaks. Here, non-flammable materials such as rock, metal, gravel are prioritized and vegetation is limited and low-growing. 
  • Making the Landscape Legible: Fire Hydrants and Safety Equipment as Teaching Tools – Traditionally, required elements such as fire hydrants are excluded in the design process. By incorporating these elements and drawing attention to their design we can deepen an understanding of their role, function and the safety that they provide.
  • Marking Defensible Design through Form– Another way of grounding users in time and space is to reveal fire mitigation zones through the landscape. Changes in vegetation and pathways mark defensible fire zones to amplify the differentiation of material and spacing between these spaces. Other artful ideas include  painting bands on some tree trunks to highlight the pruning height recommended to minimize vertical fire movement or preserving  stumps of strategically thinned trees to  to express the importance of healthy forest density.

 

For our work, fire mitigation is an ongoing conversation and dynamic process through the life of the project, especially because the landscape continually changes. As we continue to grapple with these complex and uncertain realities, we are grateful for the passionate community members and experts that contribute their time and efforts to think critically about these issues to ensure the safety and health of future visitors and inhabitants of our landscapes.