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Mateo Chester
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So I live in Colorado, and last fire season was no joke... "They" are saying it's going to be 4 times worse this year... So may the hydrogen forces be with ALL...

Anyways, how is/can permaculture be used specifically to "fight" the devastation of wildfires? I understand the very concept of permaculture defeats the potential for wildfires, but is anything being done locally/state-wide/nationally/politically to start putting the word PERMACULTURE in the same sentence as WILDFIRE PREVENTION?? I mean, all obviousness aside, this is a serious problem, and it seems as though permaculture can help. I feel like part of the answer is in the marketing and advertising of the permaculture concept, and it's contextual use within wildfire conversations. . . Let's open this up, because at this rate, we're really going to need the help.....

Peace
 
Miles Flansburg
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I think you are right Matt. Seems like lots of swales and ponds in the forest , as well as hugels, would be a great step forward . But good luck getting the people who run the forests to listen to us!
 
Saybian Morgan
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you can check these out but I can't for the life of me find the Fire control Mp3 i have on my phone that you could really really use. It's practicaly everything I've learned about fire in my lifetime, bill survived a catastrophic firestore and really expounds on this very very australian issue.
http://www.permacultureplants.net/Audio/audio.htm

If you don't come across the fire control mp3, can you send me a message privately. I can probably extract it off my phone, it's been there for years I don't remember where I got it. But even my daughter now knows how to find the fire shadow's if you can't escape and which plants to boundary your home with. There are some plants with serious fire retarding powers. Please don't hesitate to request it from me I don't mind going to the trouble.
 
Ben Plummer
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This may be a transcript of the mp3 Saybian is referring to. The fire control section starts on page 54. David Holmgren wrote a booklet on the subject called The Flywire House.
 
Saybian Morgan
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That does go with the fire control talk yes, the talk itself last about 50 minutes so somebody must of made the files as a subset of the larger 1983 pdc. It's not in that pdc itself from the link i sent you, some of the aquaculture doubles over but other bit's you can here there recording from a lesson on the landscape.
I'm really hoping to find it so everyone can have it who finds this thread in the future.
 
Paul Cereghino
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There are lots of different problems when you talk about fire cycles, people, and lodgepole pine forest. Then there are a different set of problems if you are talking about Ponderosa pine forest or chaparral or grasslands. I think that property protection is also a really different issue than unwinding 100 years of ecological modification. The scale is just so radically different. In a lodgepole forest, when you have a raging crown fire, the fire front is dehydrating everything in front of it. I think our ability to affect this kind of front, in a system that is 50 years overdue for a stand replacing burn and riddled with beetles, through localized rain percolation is really limited.

I'd encourage us to talk to "them". The people who are on the fire lines understand the dynamics of fire and people in ways that we don't. I think that if we have something to offer them (and us) through PC design, it will come only after we observe the dynamics at intimate range for quite some time. The cost of fuel load reduction at large scale at this point is huge. Communities are sprawling into forest land like they have never done before, both starting fires, and creating fire vulnerability. Government burns its budget on fighting fires because if they don't "they" will get lynched politically by "us".

So I suspect in a stand replacing lodgepole pine burn, you need significant fire breaks both for canopy fires and ground fires.
 
Mateo Chester
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**EDIT**

Thanks for your replies. So much information in just 4 posts.. Really inspiring stuff. For consistency in direction, the general intent of this thread is to gather as much possible information on the topic of PERMACULTURE AND WILDFIRE PREVENTION. First hand experiences, links to books, lectures, PDF's, youtube video's, new extrapolations on old thoughts.. Anything helps. Gracias.
 
Mateo Chester
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Correct me if I'm wrong but would this thread also fit in the "greening the desert" portions of these forums? Just throwing it out there, because I can't help but to think of John Liu's Green Gold documentary and the Allan Savory TED Talk... What about Greening Lodgepole Pine Forests??
 
John Polk
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I believe that permaculturists living in wildfire prone areas need to look at the important role that wildfires play. They are a necessary evil. Part of Mother Nature's way of keeping a forest healthy. When growth gets too dense, Mother Nature steps in to do a little 'house keeping'. The cycle of life.

Understanding this cycle (specific to your region), can help you decide on appropriate planting and maintenance. I have seen pockets of undamaged areas in entire canyons that have burned. Proper landscaping and maintenance was the key.

There are areas of Southern California, Australia, & South Africa where these fires are common. Each of these regions has native plants which are difficult to get to germinate unless you give them a smoke treatment. These are the plants that Mother Nature has designed to repopulate a cleansed area.

If we are going to build Mc Mansions in burn prone areas, we need to design properly, not just expect Forestry personnel to risk their lives each year to 'save our bacon'.

 
James Colbert
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Although is think a proactive approach would be best, land ravaged by wildfire offers a unique opportunity for the Permaculture community. The land is cheap and or the land owner is more open to taking preventative measures. The dead but still standing trees will protect a baby forest or food forest and with the addition of some water retention spaces and swales you have an are that will be basically fire proof.
 
Erica Wisner
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By the way - the US Forest Service has a database of plants with specific attention to fire effects: how they burn, how they regenerate, what conditions favor each plant, and what plant communities and regrowth conditions favor certain types of fires. Fascinating reading. Distinguishes between fire-adapted plants that colonize quickly from seed vs those that survive, whether from underground parts or the whole plant, what conditions are required for germination, etc.
Also covers a lot of other interesting plant aspects, like what browsers or other animals (or people) depend on that plant, what times of year, which plants may indicate recent disturbances like fire, clearing, compacted soils, etc. Wonderful stuff. They are specific about summarizing what they know - observations are connected with a state or area, and citations given, not just stated as universal fact.

www.fs.fed.us/database/FEIS/plants = FEIS database (Fire Ecology Impact Something-or-other?)


Bill Mollison's Permaculture Designer Manual gets into fire regimes and protection in Chapter 12.16, (for some reason he places it in the humid cool-to-cold climates chapter, probably because of the relationship with mountains and settled areas? I guess desert as-such doesn't burn well, though our arid lands burn easily and often.)
This section goes over details for everything from climate-level risks (e.g. direction of spin of firestorm winds in northern and southern hemispheres) to siting of homes and infrastructure with respect to ridges, to useful tips on fuels reduction, and immediate design of stock shelters and household surroundings for protection from radiation and personal survival. There's also some discussion of nutrient effects and recovery periods.

This thread covers that chapter from our recent book club: it isn't huge yet, but I'm cross-linking posts in both in case useful details come out in either place. (The discussion here already seems useful.)
http://www.permies.com/t/34465/pdm/Permaculture-Designers-Manual-Chapter-HUMID
 
Ann Torrence
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John Polk wrote:I believe that permaculturists living in wildfire prone areas need to look at the important role that wildfires play. They are a necessary evil. Part of Mother Nature's way of keeping a forest healthy. When growth gets too dense, Mother Nature steps in to do a little 'house keeping'. The cycle of life.
That's all fine and philosophical, but when the wildland fire is a couple miles away and wind is kicking up in the wrong direction, you need to have an action plan. Growing up with Santa Ana wind-driven fires and living in the west all but 6 months of my life, fire has my abiding respect. We had a fire near here two summers past that got my attention. Care of people includes myself. We live in a community on a two-lane-highway and it threatened to cut us off on one side. I'm out of here at that point. Now we have more critters than last summer. Part of living in these areas includes having a plan to care for my responsibilities. Our house is defensible (key is the metal roof), but when the sun turns red at 3 pm, why are you still here? And where am I taking the critters? No friends in the city can take us in. When I was kid, my parents' bridge partners showed up with their German Shepherd. Great excitement at age 7, but where can I go with my goats today?

My bag is perpetually packed (actually it is two tubs and a cat carrier) and an evac checklist is taped to each tub. The car has at least a half tank of gas at all times. I hope I never have to use it. But it's foolish not to have it. And a couple hundred bucks to ease the way out. Am embarrassed at how long it took me to get it done, but it is now.

That said, I greatly enjoyed the mushrooms foraged near the burn that my friends brought me. In the macro-landscape, fire is an unavoidable part of the landscape. I just don't want any more embers falling on my house, thanks. And if it's going to happen, 1) bless the folks who come here from all over to fight the fire for us and 2) while the long-term effects are part of nature's normal, sometimes the best short-term response is to flee.
 
Erica Wisner
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Absolutely.
The bit in the manual about surviving a wildfire, and survivor guilt, was something I read with a catch in my breathing. I would not wish it on anyone, but in the event it happens in your neighborhood, being prepared sure beats ignoring the problem.

Modern housing is a lot more flammable than historically. Involves a lot more plastics, volatile trim, 'weatherization' e.g. foam insulation stuff, and finishes. Even siding and gutters are often made of petroleum products, let alone asphalt roofing. Firefighter sites now say that many recent house fires give people only 30 seconds to 3 minutes before successful escape may be impossible. (Used to be more like 5 to 10 or 15 minutes; firefighters used to be able to get there in time to rescue people, in other words.)
They also point out that smoke inhalation can cause major mental difficulties (OK, they didn't put it quite that way). Disorientation is one of the first symptoms of CO poisoning or O2 deprivation. So having a firm plan, that you have practised with your actual body, that gets you out of there promptly, can be a life-saver compared to trying to make last-minute decisions with your addled brain. Panic can help motivate you to get the heck out, but it can also interfere with thinking. So again, setting things up so you don't need to give anything a second thought is a life-saver.

Metal roofing won't necessarily protect from the radiation or ground-flames of a wild fire, but does feel more reassuring than asphalt I'm sure!
Ernie favors wooden shingles that can be soaked down; I'm torn between that and metal roofing. I've also heard good things about masonry and stucco non-flammable walls. We are looking at a masonry half-wall for our new building, partly for this reason.

The landscaping and evacuation plan seem like a much bigger part of survivability than the house itself, however. If fire has reached the walls in full force, or even if your walls are facing the full radiation brunt of a firestorm, there may not be much the house design can do unless it's buried in 3 foot of dirt. (Another traditional design for this area...)

I think each area's fire crews tend to put out specific recommendations. These may include:
- Ways to manage the landscape in general (clearing trees at least 30 feet from the house in our area is one item). Note the distinctions about fire-prone, fire-resistant trees, and trees that can be counted as part of a 'green belt'. Bill Mollison's recommendations include a shelterbelt that blocks radiation from a nearby forest fire, which would be made up of mostly fire-resistant, green (irrigated or swale-grown) trees, at a specific distance from the house. I could see earthworks or retaining walls also being helpful.

- When to start taking certain seasonal protective measures (like mowing or watering anything within that zone come summer). I hesitate to trim out too much green scrub, despite its ability to turn into volatile tinder in a fire, because it also manifestly collects condensation moisture up here during the winter. So I generally just tidy things up a bit, making it easier to get in there and cut a fire break if we had to. Or, you know, for a trained crew to do the same. Burying the dead-and-down as hugels instead of leaving it as jackstraw trip hazards, that sort of thing. Our fire service puts out a pamphlet with expected flame heights and speeds in different types of fire, grassland vs. scrub vs. crown fires, so you can see the benefit of various kinds of landscaping. Basically, there are very few hard-core wildfires that you'll stop, but there are steps to arrange for them to 'naturally' die down as they approach your place.

- What station or channel to turn for updates in case of a fire (there's also the Event Command website, where you can see updates released to fire crews generally). Once the lightning storms start striking, we keep an ear to the ground around here.

A lot of folks around here have 'bug-out bags' for all manner of hypothetical bad times; we basically keep critical meds, first-aid, and valuables in a couple of small bags. Anything else is replaceable.
My folks stored their important papers in a fire-safe (little metal box or lockable metal safe), which also seems like a great idea so you don't have to give them a second thought.

I think the reminder about 'nature's normal' is worth noting, though, because of historic problems with the total-suppression approach. Fuel loads in national and private forests are pretty high, and poor regrowth management means a lot of scrubby, overcrowded standing dead where once there were more open, more moist forests shaded by very tall survivor trees. And not recognizing the 'natural' progression of fuel loads toward more-devastating fires reduces your awareness to mitigate those loads before the fire arrives.

Native Americans apparently managed food production with fire, but they also had a pattern of deforestation around settlements. This was attributed to stripping for fuel - the longer the settlement had been there, the wider the circle of open lands. But it would serve the dual purpose of a firebreak in case of large-scale forest fires. If you were going to light off the whole area annually or bi-annually for forage improvement, you'd definitely have some kind of system for how to make sure your kin survived the process.

Or not? maybe this was the early American version of the ultimate April Fool's prank? I don't want to make too many assumptions.

I would guess there was a serious set of taboos and heritage practices that all stacked together, and when practiced together, it worked well. Could be something like lighting small fires in season, or having certain ceremonies that involved clearing spaces for bonfire celebrations, so there would be patchy firebreaks everywhere when 'the big one' hit. Which would keep it from becoming a big one. In areas with a specific, natural fire season, I seem to recall people targeting specific gathering areas like berry-patches in 2-year-old burned-out wet mountain sides (a pretty tasty and low-fire-risk place to be in a Western August), or big festival camps in riverside areas. I suspect they left the dormant, fire-prone savannahs largely alone, unless they were trying to use fire specifically to catch game.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has further info on pre-Columbian fire management regimes. This is one of those areas where I keep hearing people say "We now know that Native Americans managed extensively with use of fire," but I don't know how we now know that, or whether we know more than that about it. I haven't seen any of the primary sources, and it seems like one of those areas that several dozen anthropologists and forest-service firefighters and tribal members have got to be poring over somewhere.

I can't help thinking that lighting a little backfire might be one of the easiest things you could do to save your own skin or home, but one of the worst things you could do to your neighbors (as it might blow up into a full-scale fire by the time it reaches them). Getting out and letting the coordinated crews fight it sounds good; and following recommended steps in coordination with local efforts also seems very good-neighborly.

While I'd take advantage of any permie suggestions that seem practical for home or landscaping, when it comes to firefighting tactics I think local event command has to trump.
An experienced firefighter might protest any bass-ackward stupid calls up the chain of command; the local guys do sometimes include bad apples, or work from bad assumptions.
But as an inexperienced wildlands resident, I would feel it was far more important to let the firefighters risk their lives unimpeded, than to get in their way to try some fancy Aussie trick I read about somewhere.
There may be plenty of elements of the situation that I have no knowledge of, that would affect a local decision or priority, or even the appropriate tactics for local conditions.

-Erica W
 
Erica Wisner
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update: I'm now doing some training as a volunteer firefighter.

I think the permaculture concepts of 'zones' around the home, and the wildfire prevention 'zones' for fuels reduction, could really work together if what you're worried about is surviving a fire.

I can't conceive of the scale of alteration that would be required to change the West into a non-fire-prone landscape: a landscape that would not catch on fire in lightning storms every summer. There's evidence is that it's been fire-adapted for thousands of years, basically since the last ice-age and between the ones before that. Some of the species that thrive under periodic wildfire have been working on those adaptations for millions of years.

But we also have evidence that we used to have more variety of Western forests, wetter lakes and landscapes. The Colorado was certainly wetter a few centuries ago than it is now, although it may have been drier before that. Some of these effects are artifacts of global climate changes, not necessarily only the modern ones - water deposits that were remnants of ice-age glaciers are being drawn down, and mountain glaciers and snowcap vary from year to year, currently diminishing, but still a factor in year-round streams and rivers.

We can also point to specific influences that humans have caused in this landscape over recent centuries: The depletion of beaver populations, the introduction of horses and then wheeled transport; the change from widespread Native American practices like migratory and settled gathering rounds, to widespread Western European practices like tillage and grazing livestock; the broadscale deforestation of ancient forest lands, and introduction of invasive species (both cultivated and weeds) to the floodplains and steppe hills. The reliance on subterranean fuels instead of forest debris, and patterns of settlement that change people's interaction with forestry and small fuels (and pole) collection.

The idea of cutting swales or key-lining the forest throughout the American West presumes a level of mechanical input that has never been affordable, and is likely to become less so if we are indeed past the peak of cheap energy production. It also implies a huge amount of disturbance added to already-disturbed territory, which is well-adapted to fire but highly susceptible to rapid erosion due to steep terrain, sparse groundcover, and short growing seasons for revegetation. Currently, we have about 3 months of spring when the landscape is reliably neither frozen nor parched - and almost all the wild vegetation grows explosively at this time, then sets seed by July. Much of it goes dormant for late July, August, and early September, our fire season.

We don't seem to have "fire winds" that are special bringers of disasterous fire seasons - every single summer sees humidity below 20%, and tinder-dry forests and sagebrush steppe.

I've heard about Neil Bertrando doing keyline restoration work on a few hundred acres of degraded grazing lands in Nevada, but that was a multi-year project, on lands with little standing timber, and a carefully-planned disturbance. It did make a big difference, I hear.
Small fires here burn that much territory in a day.
The Carlton fire complex, by contrast, has burned over 250,000 acres since July 14, and is still not completely contained.
There just aren't enough Neil Bertrando's to go around.

The fuels buildup in these areas is high, and if you look at some of the map overlays, the big fires often get stopped along a boundary with a previous years' big fire. Areas that have burned out 2 or 5 or 10 years ago are easier to fight fire in than an area that hasn't burned in decades.

So that thing people are saying, about fire being 'a natural factor of these regions', that's definitely happening. It is patchy on a large scale, and sometimes on a small scale. Patchy disturbance is great because it leaves adjacent areas as seed-banks. The large-scale intense burns are not as good, because they sterilize more soils and can exceed the seeds' travel capacity.

But what's the alternative? The only things I can think of that would completely cut short the cycle of lightning-strike or manmade fires that rip through the dessicated fuels every summer would be catastrophic changes to our environment: a new ice age, a wildfire that burned the entire landscape leaving no fuels, bombing strips of land to 100-mile-wide barrens and keeping them denuded down to mineral soil. However, the opposite approach - encouraging forests to revegetate and conserve soil moisture longer into the summer - seems to create local vulnerability to fire but ultimately reward the region as a whole with reduced risk and a more moisture-moderate climate.

The natural process of lightning-strike fires, and the speed of available human response to fight those fires, is going to ensure that we have ongoing patchy fire processes all over the American West. There is no way to prevent it, with the available people, resources, and time. Even without human firefighting, the fires do sometimes skip a little pocket of wildlife. Human firefighting just preserves larger unburned patches adjacent to those that burn. In these recent fires, it's been alternating between putting things out fast, or just defending homes and infrastructure.

Lightning's not the only cause - we've had careless barbecuers, campfires, unsupervised backfires, trucks driving over dry grass or hay fields, and trailers dragging metal or running on rims that throw sparks into the weeds and ignite a fire. there may be other human causes that have gone unreported because someone called it a lightning strike when the problem may have been more accurately described as a big metal barn full of petroleum-derived fuels, which happened to catch a lightning strike. But lightning alone would be sufficient to keep wildfires an issue.

I don't know of any biologically-derived material that will not catch on fire if hit by lightning.

I don't want to see non-biological materials (crustal minerals, rock, asphalt, concrete) replacing biosphere as a 'solution' to wildfire.

Many arid-climate plants are resinous or oily, and have finely-textured leaves and bark, part of their strategies for conserving moisture. They burn like torches when the heat gets intense enough - whether or not they are dry. Many of our native plants go dormant in the summer and are able to burn, or not, depending whether fire comes by - it's not just dead and down, or snags, or debris.
Most evergreens are like this: pine, juniper, cedar, even some of the broadleaved evergreens use waxy coatings on their leaves to conserve moisture, or fine-textured leaves, or resinous pitch.
The alpine lichens that swell up like seaweed to absorb winter moisture, are in summer dry and oily enough to burn like flash paper.
Sagebrush, chaparral, and other semi-arid scrub plants are notorious for having rich concentrations of fuels due to their aromatic resins.

It seems unlikely that we will manage to grow corridors of some kind of plant that's resistant enough to stop the spread of fire, when there's a 100-year-old pitch-pine burning like a torch and its needle litter is igniting below it.

I would not like to see all the native pine and sagebrush removed, even if it were possible to remove it all.
The soil crusts that form in the 'bare' areas between bunchgrass and brush are a key part of slowing the erosive damage, and they are easily destroyed by over-grazing, machinery, or landscaping projects.

Bill Mollison talks about the types of plants that don't burn readily - those that store water in their leaves instead of having waxy or dessicated leaves. I will keep an eye out for them, but I think around here they're mostly irrigation-dependent. Summer drought can crisp most things up well before the fire arrives, and the radiant heat from the burn-ready materials can do the rest of the job. On a local scale, swales and other irrigation-supplementing or water-harvesting features could create little bands or rings of fire-resistant trees. Analogous to running the cottonwoods and aspen of the creek beds along a longer path, girdling the hillside instead of just down each vertical wash / chimney.

Our landscape is basin-and-range, characterized by enormous geological-scale swales and rock-ridges. These formations affect the weather: the rain falls on the seaward (west) side of the first two mountain ranges, leaving little further rain until the higher slopes of the continental divide.
The primary weather pattern from coast to mid-basin is Mediterranean, where most of our rain is in spring, some in winter, and we typically see 2 or 3 summer months without significant rainfall. Summer thunderstorms bring lightning more often than rain. Somewhere to the east of us, the Rockies and Midwest seem to have more summer moisture, and the eastern continent from the Mississipi valley east "breathes" moisture from the Gulf and Great Lakes northward, then eastward for most of the summer.

So the big challenge is to increase the water retention in the landscape to more than 3 months capacity. And we have evaporation rates something like 3 to 4 times the annual precipitation rates - and I would guess that the evaporation is far greater in summer, especially in windy weather which also accelerates fire - and that's when there is effectively zero precipitation. Seeing dew on the grass is remarkable, even on a farm with sprinklers running every day - a once-a-month event.

I have tried hugel beds of increasing size the past few years, and while they do increase the time between waterings, I haven't yet managed to get typical garden annuals to survive 3 months of summer drought. I'm also trying out more drought-adapted cousins, like horseradish instead of broccoli.
Will continue the experiment - if nothing else, it's harder for a slash pile to catch on fire if it's buried in dirt or pond muck.

The scale of hugels required to sustain moisture levels through an entire Western summer - to the point where they changed the climates of entire forests so that we got routine summer rains without lightning, and the trees could not catch on fire if you set a match to them - that level of terraforming is kind of inconceivable to me.
If you did that, it would not be the West as we know it. That's for sure. It might resemble the West as it once was, sometime before European settlement, sometime back closer to the ice age water deposits.

I don't know of anywhere on the planet with our combinations of altitudes and prevailing winds that is humid rather than arid. Inland basins protected by mountains between them and the coasts tend to be dry and scrub-steppe - even on an island as small as New Zealand. Does anyone have a counter-example where a landscape in the rain-shadow of mountains still manages to retain year-round humidity, due to biotic or landform influences?

Beaver dams are probably part of the missing piece. We are still short on beavers centuries after the trapping boom, in which colonial powers competed to strip all the available beaver out of regions so their competitors' trappers would not find it worth encroaching on the territory. Beavers are a major agent for creating sedimentation instead of erosion, and they also tend to coppice the small fuels and keep them relatively green and open. The orchard growers do not love them, though, not in a big way.

A population that appreciates water as a scarce resource, and doesn't do jackass things to "stop flooding" which happens for maybe 2 weeks a year, such as funneling it downhill faster, would be nice. A lot of the population of the arid West seems to come out here for freedom, or cheap land, or to escape from Big Brother. Most enjoy more elbow-room and fewer people. We have some ardent permaculture junkies, but no matter their politics, few Western neighbors take kindly to unsolicited advice. And rightly: a lot of folks who arrive from other climates have a huge range of strange and unworkable ideas, and are often responsible for fire-related foolishness that costs homes and sometimes lives.

Yet even the worst fire conditions often leave patches unburned. A mountain will be nothing but charcoal and sterile soil, and there'll be this little patch somewhere that still has blooming wildflowers, a fruiting tree. Ironically we hear about numerous woodpiles that survive when their houses don't - which should tell you something about how effective a woodpile is as a method for getting wood dry enough to burn. It would be drier if you left it on the tree.

I have heard dozens of stories of places that were well-maintained surviving a fire that blew past.

So I think that giving careful thought to 'zones' for fire as well as human function is the most useful, doable, and practical response to living in a fire-prone landscape.

It is NOT acceptable or ethical to light fires in any season for the purpose of reducing fuel loads, except by careful coordination with authorities, the public, and trained expert supervisors. People have been arrested already this year for lighting unauthorized backfires below teams of firefighters on the ridge. Bill Mollison's stories about his firestorm notwithstanding, these tactics can endanger the very people trying to save your home, and MUST be coordinated with authorities if they are to do more good than harm. Modern communications means that we have phone, Facebook, radio, and television sources for information - and we can also keep our senses alert to signs of fire danger in the weather, approaching lightning storms, or signs of smoke on the horizon. It is not always easy to stay informed throughout fire season, but it is our obligation to coordinate with other people locally rather than undertake an independent, possibly murderous action on our own authority.

Even in winter our landscapes are dry enough that a fire can spread fast - one winter burnpile a few miles from us was burned (and presumed extinguished) January, only to blow up again in an April wind and light off about 10 acres. A similar story from across the valley involves an October bonfire that blew up again the following March or so. Burn piles should not be placed over stumps in our climate - they should be on mineral soil, at least 6 feet radius in all directions, the pile not more than 4' in any dimension (1.2 meters), and MUST be supervised throughout the burn by someone with redundant means to extinguish spot-fires (hose, shovel, buckets, large-capacity extinguishers).

I don't have much use for burn-piles, myself. There are so many better uses for forest debris, from hugels to mulch to firewood. Routine use of small-fuels for heating and cooking has many of the same effects as a controlled burn, without the dangers. Historically, you could often tell how long a village had been established by the radius of the cleared woodlands around it.

I think swales, moats, ponds, or large cisterns for ample water are a good tactic in general, and may save your bacon if you are forced to stand and fight it out. (not recommended - crown fires are basically unfightable). As Bill points out, in a really bad fire they will boil and steam, so they're for suppression not refuge.

The size of area required for a true 'safe zone' is tremendous - four times the height of the surrounding trees, and that's a bare minimum, without fuels of any kind. You are unlikely to have a true safe zone in a permaculture landscape. Rocky scree may appear to be without fuels, which is deceptively dangerous because it can collect a lot of flammable debris and embers between the rocks.
You might be able to make a pond that big, or a seasonal pond / meadow that could be close-mowed in fire season. Grazing animals on a swaled landscape can maintain a close-cropped sod that would at least host only very short flames, though the fire can creep below ground.

But what you're really looking for is not what firefighters consider a 'safe zone' - you're looking for a defensible space, an area where you could reasonably put out a small fire without it threatening the house, or where if you were forced to evacuate ahead of a large fire, you have a better chance than anyone of finding the house intact on your return.

Landscaping and maintenance are long-term commitments, but they (and topography) seem to have more influence over fire behavior than the house materials as such. Not that thatch is ever going to be easy to defend, but even metal or concrete won't protect you if there are any wood- or plastic-details near roof eaves / doors / windows, and there is a lot of high-intensity radiation from flammable debris nearby. Radiant heat can even ignite things indoors through window glass.

Our fire chief says "sweat the small stuff." Eliminate windblown debris where embers can land at the edges of the house, that kind of thing. Because while you can't always defend against a catastrophic fire, you can do quite a lot to help your home survive a lower-intensity fire. Firefighters report that a lot of fires are survivable - the wind blows flames through too fast to catch all the grass on fire, or the flames creep slow enough that a sidewalk or rock wall can stop them. Spot fires from embers may re-ignite the fire downwind, leaving little unburned patches in between.

The pit-houses buried in 2 or 3 feet of dirt seem like the most likely natural shelter from a fire, that would survive whether or not it was defended. Especially with the traditional sand-pit fire area in the center below the roof hole.
Having a root cellar on the place that can double as a fire shelter sounds pretty good.

Do note, however, that a home with holes in the top and a door in the side looks a lot like a rocket stove. Make sure that the cellar door can be closed in a fireproof and airtight way, leaving you breathing cool soil-filtered air while hotter air and gases escape upward. As Bill suggests, a dogleg or turn from door to back corner so that radiant heat is blocked. You can do a down-and-up cold-sink entrance like an igloo, or a sideways turn, or a rock wall outside the entrance with no flammables between it and the door.

Bill also suggests locating fire-blocking structures (swales, less fire-prone trees, etc) below your winter sun angles, but on the sunward side. His area has winds coming from the same direction as the sun, which promote fire conditions.

In our areas, fire is more likely to be coming upslope. Wind conditions change throughout the summer, and some of the worst fire conditions involve dry lightning from thunderstorms that create localized strong winds in all directions. I'd love to see some examples of permaculture (or conventional) landscapes, especially Zone 1 and 2 designs in wildlands-urban areas that have survived several fires, yet are proceeding toward deeper soil banks and longer-lasting moisture reserves.

I think we also have to talk about how we coordinate between landowners and communities, designing sensible communities for fire resistance. This is not a conversation that's easy to have with a lot of arid-lands landowners; there's a strong cultural bias toward selfish independence, or land rights that disregard larger consequences.

This is as good a community as any I've seen for starting productive conversations between conservatives (property-rights) and conservationists (ecological considerations). There are a lot of permies and back-to-the-landers involved in traditionally conservative roles like firefighting, medical, and farming. It will be exciting to see what we can do together.

-Erica W
 
Dave Lodge
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After the fire comes, plant annual crops right on the burned ground. They are designed to take advantage of disturbed areas.

When fire happens in the growing period, everything is reset back to disturbed ground, and can be reseeded with annuals immediately when appropriate.
 
Xisca Nicolas
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Fighting fires in the modern way requires a lot of energy and mechanical input!
> I recently saw the work of 3 helicopters, many trucks and men (and still wait for the answer about the cost of it!)

Erica Wisner wrote: The idea of cutting swales or key-lining the forest throughout the American West presumes a level of mechanical input that has never been affordable, and is likely to become less so if we are indeed past the peak of cheap energy production.
....
The fuels buildup in these areas is high, and if you look at some of the map overlays, the big fires often get stopped along a boundary with a previous years' big fire. Areas that have burned out 2 or 5 or 10 years ago are easier to fight fire in than an area that hasn't burned in decades.

... dessicated fuels ...


Traditional slash-and-burn?
No more abandonned lands without any tending?

No tree will burn with a quick dry herb fire.
Here, the Canary pine regrow after even BIG wildfires.
But the California indians did burn the land even where fire-sensitive trees like pines and oaks were growing,
just because they did QUICK fires on ever tended lands with no fuels build-ups.

A wild fire works as a stove fire :
-> little fuel will fire-> medium fuel that will fire -> the big fuel.

Concusion : leave only small and big fuel!

When there is some acumulation, then the fire can stay longer instead of running through quickly burned bushes.
My place burned very little time ago, due to unattended electric cables passing through iron pipes (they broke and cut the cable).

1) The fire would have stopped without intervention if the dry grass/bush had been
- either eaten by animals
- or cut with a brush cutter
- or burned before.
- or if it had been cultivated.

2) The trees had no time to really catch fire, because the fire went fast.
They would even have burned less if it had been only a grass land...
BUT there was some bushes (cistus monspellensis, ...that I use as fire wood!)
I had planned to clean this piece of land, but I cannot do it all at once of course.
 
Will Meginley
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Erica Wisner wrote:I'd be interested to know if anyone has further info on pre-Columbian fire management regimes. This is one of those areas where I keep hearing people say "We now know that Native Americans managed extensively with use of fire," but I don't know how we now know that, or whether we know more than that about it. I haven't seen any of the primary sources, and it seems like one of those areas that several dozen anthropologists and forest-service firefighters and tribal members have got to be poring over somewhere.


Much of that information is locked behind pay walls in various scientific journals, most notably the journals "Fire Ecology" and "International Journal of Wildland Fire." The best source I know of that's readily accessible to the public would be the book "Fire in America" by historian Stephen Pyne. He's also compiled fire histories on other countries/regions including Canada, Australia, and Europe.
 
Erica Wisner
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Will Meginley wrote:
Erica Wisner wrote:I'd be interested to know if anyone has further info on pre-Columbian fire management regimes. This is one of those areas where I keep hearing people say "We now know that Native Americans managed extensively with use of fire," but I don't know how we now know that, or whether we know more than that about it. I haven't seen any of the primary sources, and it seems like one of those areas that several dozen anthropologists and forest-service firefighters and tribal members have got to be poring over somewhere.


Much of that information is locked behind pay walls in various scientific journals, most notably the journals "Fire Ecology" and "International Journal of Wildland Fire." The best source I know of that's readily accessible to the public would be the book "Fire in America" by historian Stephen Pyne. He's also compiled fire histories on other countries/regions including Canada, Australia, and Europe.


Thanks for the references.
That fire-adapted species list on the Forest Service database does seem to be good publicly-available data, but it doesn't go so far as to describe management-by-fire.

It's a controversial subject, I suppose. Giving the public a lot of info might result in some spectacular clashes and tear apart local communities.

It's easy to get despondent about actually coming to a politically-accepted solution that involves widespread changes in wildlands management. I do hear conservative politicians as well as liberals talking about increasing our prescribed burns, which seems like a step in the right direction.

If you are managing on private property, it's critical to realize that you don't necessarily have legal rights to light fire on your property or do a "prescribed burn". This might have been acceptable when the area was more sparsely populated, and people had a better sense of when the area would be seasonally unoccupied. (Or maybe it was a problem back then, too; do you suppose some of the inter-tribal enmities and tribal-settler raids started when somebody burned someone else out of their camp? Hard to get someone to understand the deeply harmonious ecological reasoning when they are here to take revenge for Grandma getting barbecued.)

In any case, we now have a lot of private property that is not set up to withstand frequent fires of any intensity. Too much "permanent" housing, of highly flammable kinds, and flammable inventory like vehicles, hay storage, etc. There is some tolerance for dumb accidents, but deliberately starting wild fires is called arson, and it doesn't take more than a handful of fire-fighters or hunters getting caught or having to run from your handiwork to set the community against you. Neighbors and local authorities will do their best to make sure you never get another chance to burn somebody up. The Oregon ranchers who are in the news, and back in jail now for arson, being a case in point. The court records indicate that while nobody was burned up, several people were endangered in each of the two arson incidents.

In many places it is still allowed to pile and burn woody debris in the safer seasons (spring, while it's very wet). WA agriculturalists have standing exemptions to burn orchard wastes and such in a controlled manner. This usually involves piles no more than 4 feet in diameter, and burning only 1 pile at a time, and having a person on hand to monitor the burn pile at all times (with fire extinguishing capability within a few seconds' reach of the fire). If I see someone's leaf burning "pile" spreading flames along the roadside weeds, and flaming tumbleweeds rolling down toward their hog pens, and nobody in sight, I will yell until someone comes out to admit responsibility and get the fire under control. If nobody comes out, I am seriously considering turning you in. This is one case where being an idiot will get your neighbors killed, and turning you in is pure self-defense. This has nothing to do with being on the local fire department - I did it before I ever joined, I just know more phone numbers now, and have a better understanding of exactly which laws you're breaking.

I don't know if it's possible for private parties to get their land onto a planned grass-fire or shrub-fire controlled burn schedule. Maybe you can work with a department like the NRCS, BLM, or DNR to oversee the plan and provide trained people to monitor it.
Basically, it's good practice to find out who are the responsible agencies in your area: who would get rousted out of their beds if someone reported a fire alarm?
Get in touch with them before you start anything, to find out the proper procedures, what's considered "normal," and whether you can get permits for unusual or uncontained fires.
They will also know where to get info about burn bans and industrial precautions (when it's considered too dangerous to light fires, or to operate combustion-powered equipment in the woods and fields without suitable fire precautions).


There are other pemaculture methods that can help, however, without feeling trapped between arson and poor management.
Mob-grazing, intensive pasture rotation, or even mowing and mulching can help manage small brush and grasses.
In another fire-discussion thread Rose Mackasie posted some interesting pictures from Spain, and Tyler Ludens posted this , regarding careful use of cattle grazing to reverse desertification:
http://www.savoryinstitute.com/imported-20100211170933-home/2010/2/25/cattle-can-reverse-desertification-and-global-climate-change.html
and someone mentioned this link there as well: http://hoboranches.com/

Our young dogs make very good mulch-processing machines, at least at a small scale, as well as rapid composters and compost-distributors for stale treats that could otherwise attract bears.
Pigs or chickens, carefully managed, can be similarly useful, creating bare and well-fertilized areas that can be rotated between green and barren without the dry-straw weed accumulation in between.
I could see using pig pens as a "fire moat" around one aspect of a property.

Harvesting your own small fuels for firewood, starting right around your house and developed property and moving gradually outward, can be a good two-problems-one-solution approach to reduce ladder fuels. Obviously I like rocket mass heaters for this, but most stoves will burn natural pole wood if properly stored and dried for a few seasons.

And I saw some cool natural building details in Morocco that seemed useful for the weak point of every modern roof system: the fire-trap eave detailing.
They plaster the eaves with clay (clay draws moisture away from the wood, so the plastered rafters and purlins do not rot as they might if you sealed off the eave soffits with metal and silicone goop).

Hope the novellas earlier didn't turn anybody off.

Cross linking:
http://www.permies.com/t/50790/permaculture/Permaculture-fire-suppression
http://www.permies.com/t/41915//PEP-Firefighting-fire-saftey

Yours,
Erica W

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I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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