Three and a half years after the deadliest wildfire in California history destroyed the small town of Paradise, residents are slowly rebuilding. Last November, the third anniversary of the fire, more than 1,000 houses out of the 14,000 destroyed had been rebuilt. By this fall, the city expects 10,000 of the 40,000 displaced people to have returned. But as climate change continues to increase the risk of megafires, how can the city protect itself from future disasters?

SWA Group, a landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm, worked with city leaders to help it imagine how it could build a 90,000-acre buffer zone around it to slow the spread of the future fires. Homeowners in wildfire areas already know that their homes are safer when they are surrounded by few things that can burn; SWA’s design applies the same idea to a city.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

“What we’ve really tried to do is extend this concept of ‘defensible space’ to a much larger scale and increased complexity of an entire community,” says Jonah Susskind, partner at S.W.A. Group who spearheaded the company’s Edge of Paradise project, winner of the urban design category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

The design proposes to surround the city with new parks, sports fields, orchards and other amenities that are less likely to burn than forests, in a design that carefully considers data on current land use, ownership and fire hazard. Trees and bushes would be cleared along an overgrown electrical transmission corridor in an area the designers say could become a bike path. Sheep could help graze the area to reduce dry grass that can burn.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

Controlled burns – planned fires designed to reduce the likelihood of an accidental, rapidly spreading fire – could also take place in the area, with existing roads and other barriers used as fire breaks. (Decades of retroactive fire suppression in California have ironically leads to bigger and more out of control fires now.) Forests could be selectively thinned to further reduce risk and add more visitor recreation, which the community depends on for the local economy. In an outdoor area, fires could be allowed to burn naturally.

The team wanted to illustrate how changes could occur in a way that felt natural to residents. “It’s a community coming out of trauma,” says Susskind. “And the idea of ​​changing everything overnight is really scary. One of the things our project also does is it really tries to communicate that these ideas aren’t necessarily that radical. They’re very innovative, but they do not necessarily call for a comprehensive and radical change for the community as a whole.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

From a fire hazard perspective, Susskind says, there are areas in California where it’s arguably too dangerous to build. But this reality must be balanced with where people now live and the desperate need for more housing. “We’re kind of in a situation where there has to be a ‘both and’ scenario – we have to mitigate and adapt at the same time,” he says. “And we have to do it both more aggressively and smarter than we are doing today.”

Although it remains to be seen how much of the Paradise design will adopt, the Department of Parks and Recreation has already begun to acquire new land as a buffer zone around the town and is considering the full design. The plan may cost $20 million, much of which can likely be covered by settlements the local government receives from PG&E, the power utility responsible for the fire.

[Image: courtesy SWA Group]

Communities in other at-risk areas could apply the same fire mitigation approach; a quarter of California’s population now lives in the interface between nature and cities where the risk of fire is high. “We are still at the cutting edge of learning to live with fire,” says Susskind. “One of the things this project is trying to do is really start to move the needle in terms of how we identify the technical and ideological shifts that our disciplines need to make to meet the ever-present and ever-accelerating challenges. of climate change here in the American West.