Living with Fire – Part 4 Integrating Fire Into Daily Life (Again)

Living with Fire is a 4-part series presenting a new paradigm regarding fire – one in which we celebrate fire’s necessary ecological role, and design for a healthy relationship with it. The earlier parts of this series are:

What if we chose to view nature’s gift of annually-replenishing fixed carbon sources (i.e. chaparral brush) in high-fire danger areas as an opportunity to harmonize with the annual carbon cycle instead of as a nuisance to be combated? 

Could we improve home safety in the urban-wildland edge and take steps towards living within our annual solar energy budget, while saving money and improving habitat and ecology?

Sounds like pie in the sky? Hang with me.

Let’s Burn Wood Again

The history of human civilization is littered with examples of human settlement denuding surrounding forests and creating barren wastelands, therefore we understand if the idea of burning wood is unnerving. However, the current state of the urban-wildland edge (devastating wildfires that seem to increase in severity with each passing year, endless treadmilling of mowing, brush-hogging, burning and weed-whacking which in itself starts many fires) tells us that we need to consider another way. Modern society’s default position of declaring war on the urban-wildland edge simply cannot continue for that much longer, whether for reasons of rapidly-shifting climate, government bankruptcy, soaring costs of living, chronic water shortages etc. ad nauseum. Therefore, we’d like to ask you to set aside any personal previously held beliefs, opinions or positions for the next few minutes. We’re not trying to change anyone’s mind here. Instead let’s create a vision for what could be possible – and acknowledge it as just that. 

Let’s imagine…

Imagine that the millions of households that occupy space along the urban wildland edge are actively engaged with that edge, tending it so as to meet their own household needs while also reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfire.

What could this look like?

The dry, impenetrable and very flammable wall of chaparral that rings these houses today would be, instead of assaulted by gas powered machines several times a year and looking the part, tended judiciously by the residents, for the many dead branches and dry limbs that would otherwise accumulate and make excellent ladder fuels are actually gathered and utilized daily. 

The forest understory is walkable and park-like, because it is being used by the people that live there. The canopy is higher, because individual plants have been tended to create an umbrella of living vegetation, increasing shade and moisture retention at ground level, while also providing protection for fragile hillside soil from the seasonally intense rains. 

Oak woodland with low-growing herbaceous layer and high canopy as a result of proper management. Photo by Patrick Brose, US Forest Service

Sticks and small branches that have been gathered are used for heating water in rocket mass hot water heaters for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. They are used to fuel rocket cooktops every morning and evening when the family convenes for breakfast and dinner. They are burned in rocket mass heaters that store the heat in earthen benches situated for thermal solar gain during the winter while acting as passive cooling elements during the long, hot and dry summers.

A wood-fired Walker riserless cookstove. Photo by Walker Stoves
A rocket-mass heated cob bench. Small-diameter sticks are used for fuel, and it utilizes the thermal storage offered by an earthen mass to reduce the inefficiency of using a high temperature flame to heat a relatively low temperature space. Plus, beautiful! Photo by Village Video

People enjoy rocket-heated hot tubs fueled by the small caliber fuelwood gathered from the urban wildland edge around them. The giant outdoor gas-fired grill stations typically found today next to a chlorinated pool have been replaced by rocket ovens, rocket cooktops, parillas and all manner of wood-burning cooking set ups. 

For the big stuff, gone are the burnpiles of the past – now, various excess fuel woods are trimmed and sorted by size, then burned in cone pits, trenches, top-lit updraft gasifiers (TLUDs), and other setups designed to create charcoal from the abundant carbon sources. Once inoculated with beneficial microorganisms and fungi, this charcoal becomes biochar –  known as black gold for gardeners – supercharging their gardens, and enabling them to grow more and better food from home using less water with each passing year. Biochar fetches a good price at local farmers markets.  Industrious groups of kids might set up neighborhood charcoal stands, selling the charcoal made from the brush they helped clear from an elderly neighbor’s property. Or, if they are budding gardeners themselves, they’ll haul it home themselves for use in their home gardens. 

Biochar trench, converted potentially destructive wildfire fuel into a high-value soil amendment. Photo by The Survival Gardener.
Biochar! Photo by Gary Gilmore

In this way, what today is an annual nuisance has become an annual blessing. The abundant fuel produced by the urban wildland edge creates less reliance upon grid-based sources of fuel and energy, increases the resilience and self-reliance of individual homes and neighborhoods, and helps to build water and nutrient-retentive soils that feed both people and creatures. The regular use of these fuels by the people that live on the urban-wildland edge actually increases the health of the environment. Catastrophic fire risk is reduced, habitat is expanded and soil is protected.

We have but to change our mindset to realize a future like this one. This possible future is one in which the needs of humans and human settlement are integrated with those of the surrounding ecology. By choosing to work with the natural rhythms of place, we can learn to stop fighting fire, and instead embrace this powerful energy as part of daily life in the urban wildland edge – and in so doing, solve many of the big, intractable problems that characterize our day.

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