Photos: Katherine Montgomery

Witnessing the enormous wildfires scarring large stretches of California a few months ago, followed by the subsequent mudslides, it’s been difficult to see past the very real threat of nature. Lively green hillsides became charred and empty, and rain has made them destructive. I’ve struggled with mounting questions related to what these threats mean for life in California moving forward.

It’s well documented chaparral plant species have evolved with wildfires, sometimes requiring the burn to regenerate. The California Chaparral Institute has championed this unique ecosystem. Their articles have helped me better understand the chaparral; I now bristle when our native habitat is referred to as ‘overgrowth’ or ‘fuel’. However, the increased frequency and scale of recent fires – caused by humans – exceed what chaparral has evolved to withstand. The California Invasive Plant Council has also researched the correlation between wildfires and invasive species. Can these ecosystems adapt at a reasonable pace, or will they need to be managed?

Birds act as indicators of a landscape’s health. After the Thomas Fire, birders congregated for their annual Christmas Bird Count where they found a surprising amount of avian diversity, if not quantity, had returned to the depleted but regenerating landscape. For immediate survival birds are able to fly away from a fire. These observations left me wondering how much resiliency can be designed, and at what point do humans just need to get out of the way?

Since September, I’ve returned to hike through La Tuna Canyon. Along the canyon’s trails I’ve seen life begin to spring back from under the surface, giving me reason to reflect on survival and grit. Plants shielding themselves from death, their cells evolving to survive extreme heat, or seeds requiring fire to propagate – it’s reassuring to see nature’s resilience in person and consider how to best to mimic it.

I’ve found myself returning to the pages of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature again. I’m digging further into how others process the cycle of destruction and regeneration. Articles by experts – naturalists, engineers, birders, landscape architects, etc. – vacillate between managing the wildness and keeping a safe distance from it. As wildfires become more extreme and frequent, and as the boundaries between nature and city blur, how can we as designers protect habitat for both wildlife and humans?

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