Designing for Fire-prone Landscapes

Advancing years of research into fire-adaptive design in Paradise, Sonoma County, and across the state of California

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has experienced a drastic increase in catastrophic wildfires. Today, nearly 80 million U.S. properties stand a significant chance of exposure to fire, with nearly 16% of the country’s population living in designated fire hazard areas—both numbers that are anticipated to increase substantially by 2050. In California, the average wildfire season has nearly doubled in duration over the past half-century.

Summer 2023 was defined by fires as well, from the vast plumes of smoke from Canadian wildfires that descended on cities across the Northeast in June to the tragic fire in Lahaina on the island of Maui in August. Together with other climate-fueled risks that have captured national attention—intensifying heatwaves, tropical storms, mudslides, and more—wildfires have moved to the center of public discourse around how communities must adapt to a climate-changed future.

For the past four years, SWA has explored this question through research initiatives, publications, and partnerships.

The Edge of Paradise

Post-fire landscapes

After the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history, SWA designers engaged in the Green New Deal Superstudio began to look at adaptive strategies at the epicenter of the wildfire crisis: Paradise, California. In partnership with community leaders, the team envisioned a series of scenarios leveraging the co-benefits of fuel reduction, agricultural production, renewable energy projects, and recreational programming, using GIS software to situate potential landscape projects in a zone around the town where mitigation would be most effective.

California Burning: Designing with Fire

Pre-fire landscapes

In 2022, SWA’s annual Summer Student Program gathered students in our Sausalito studio to investigate design and planning-driven strategies responding to wildfire risk in Sonoma County, California—in particular, the 945-acre site of the former Sonoma Developmental Center. Guided by firm leaders, students developed a range of proposals including dual-purpose trail systems, agroforestry, water and land management practices, controlled burning informed by Indigenous land stewardship practices, and restructured development and road patterns.

California Wildland-Urban Interface Planning Guide

Planning & policy tools

Building on research through both “The Edge of Paradise” and “California Burning,” SWA engaged with the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to develop a statewide guide to wildfire-conscious planning in California communities. Released in August 2022, this document dives into detailed policy and planning tools with a number of case studies including Butte County, Mariposa County, Napa County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Shasta County, and the cities of Carlsbad, Malibu, and Santa Barbara.

Our upcoming publication, “Playbook for the Pyrocene,” weaves together these lessons into a practical manual for landscape architects, planners, urban designers, agencies, advocacy groups, and landowners to rethink how we design and build communities in a fire-prone world.

Synthesizing key concepts from a range of disciplines—ecology, fire science, forestry, land use planning, emergency management, and indigenous stewardship practices—the book is intended as a broadly accessible guide for a range of professionals, identifying high-level strategies that can be applied to a range of site conditions, scales, and contexts. It also includes an exhaustive appendix of supplementary resources, guidelines, best practices, and empirical research related to featured strategies.

“Playbook for the Pyrocene” will be published in October 2023, written by SWA Senior Research Associate Jonah Susskind alongside a research team including Alison Ecker, Sydnie Zhang, Harrison Raine, Shannon Clancy, Dallas Ford, Peter Rustad, Rajpankaja Talukdar, and Ted Vuchinich.