An entire industry has cropped up in the wake of devastating events
In California and other places in the West, extreme fires, more intense and frequent than ever before, are becoming the new norm. Fifteen of the state’s largest fires have occurred since 2000. Not only are the flames being fanned by anthropogenic climate change, they’re contributing heavily to it. In one week, extreme fires can release as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as all of California’s traffic does in a year.
To combat immediate threats, the wealthy are taking precautions like hiring private fire-fighting services and wrapping their homes in fireproof metal barn shutters. Meanwhile, apps like Evac-U-Pet, a sort of Uber for pet rescue, are emerging. While such measures thwart urgent hazards, they aren’t long-term community planning strategies. A bigger question looms: How do we build—and rebuild—houses, neighborhoods, and cities for resiliency?
California already has some of the strictest building codes in the country in this regard. Wood-shingled roofs are forbidden, for example, and air vents (which can easily intake floating embers) must be tightly screened. Best practices also include creating gravel buffers between buildings, or neighborhoods, and surrounding grass, and including nearby irrigation sources. Some homeowners are also opting for metal roofs, steel framing, stucco façades, and biodegradable flame retardants.
Homebound, a new tech-based custom home-building service, is the brainchild of Nikki Pechet, whose Napa home was threatened during the 2017 Northern California fires, in which 6,000 houses burned. The platform helps people rebuild as quickly and effortlessly as possible, from dealing with insurance claims to helping solve endemic industry issues like transparent customer service, finding vetted laborers, streamlining design decisions, and project management.
Homeowners with insurance checks in their pockets had the cash to rebuild, says Pechet, founder and chief executive, but many “didn’t even know where to get started; they felt hopeless.” Homebound works with individuals, but Pechet is clear about the critical importance of information sharing and networking that’s inherent to empowering neighborhoods to reconstruct and heal. “We feel a huge responsibility to help people understand what the path forward looks like,” she says. “How do you enable communities to rebuild?” That kind of thinking has been critical in the working-class Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, which has been more than 70 percent rebuilt since being ravaged by the Tubbs fire in 2017. (Homebound currently operates in Santa Rosa, as well as Malibu, Sonoma, and Napa, though it plans to move to broader markets at large.)
Deploying resources at a community-wide level in the face of such disaster—and considering whether to rebuild at all in some places—remains an overarching challenge that isn’t easy to solve. Between 2000 and 2050, as many as 1.2 million homes could be built in California’s highest wildfire risk areas. Wide access roads, irrigation, and defensible buffer zones are crucial for safety and resilience. But fire-resistant materials and emergency water sources alone won’t deter the most extreme wildfires. Municipal planning that inhibits sprawl in “near-nature” areas where wildlife and civilization intersect is also crucial, says Anthony Brower, director of sustainable design and senior design associate in Gensler’s Los Angeles office.
In dense communities, microgrids—where buildings and plots of land are understood to be interconnected, not just lone parcels—can also help neighborhoods share power loads and produce and store renewable energy, enabling quicker disaster recovery. This type of intersectionality requires a new way of thinking about how individual buildings within communities interact (an idea that is not unique to wildfire-prone areas). The goal should be to encourage intelligent expansion, says Brower, and reduce intrusion into wind-prone natural areas. “Wildfires are a warning sign,” points out the architect. “We have an opportunity here to reconsider our culture’s relationship with how we live in this landscape.”