Turning Fire Into Water: Fire Preparedness through Forest and Watershed Regeneration

Co-Written by David Shaw and Melissa Ott Fant

“Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.” – Peter Drucker

This is part two of a series on permaculture approaches to fire ecology, preparedness, recovery, and regeneration. Read part one of the series here.

After exploring fire ecology and resources for communicating during active fires, this section addresses recovery and regeneration strategies for both homeowners as well as those managing public lands and “wildlands.” Essentially our strategy is to “turn fire into water.” Sounds alchemical, right?!? Well… it is! 

We can take woody materials which might otherwise be considered “fuel load” and use them to catch and store water on the landscape, thereby rehydrating the earth. Let’s start by looking at the traditional methods for fire preparedness and then continue on to strategies for building water retention landscapes and soils that can hold more water and carbon. 

First, please check out the websites for the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County (RCD), and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).

Fuel load reduction, “defensible space,” chipping and shaded fuel break 

As has already been stated, a big part of our problem lies in the fact that we have an excess of dead and diseased wood built up in our forests (and buildup of dead thatch in our grasslands—see holistic planned grazing below). There are a number of ways to remove this fuel load including:

Cultural burning. Traditionally this build up of fuels would be avoided through cultural burning (explored in part one here). This has not yet returned as a widespread common practice, through there are many efforts underway to depart from our current fire suppression policy. A retired fire chief once told me, “in the future, firefighters may be setting more fires than they put out.” 

Manually with saws, loppers, and wood chippers. In many of our forests, it’s currently unsafe to employ cultural burning because of the extreme build up of fuel load over many decades. In this instance we recommend people manually remove the fuel load using chainsaws and wood chippers, or hand tools such as pole saws and loppers. The idea is to remove the dead and diseased wood and turn it into mulch that is left onsite, or into brush gabions for mitigating erosion in riparian zones (see our section on gabions below). This strategy improves the water holding capacity of the soil, decreases erosion, and diverts wood waste from our landfills. Oh yeah, and it decreases catastrophic fire danger. 


The RCD and Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz have periodically offered rebates and low-to-no-cost chipping programs.

Note: when possible, it’s best to keep these wood chips onsite. Friends in Sonoma County told us that after the Tubbs fire many of their community’s wood chips were hauled away to Arizona to be used in a biomass energy facility. It’s better to blow these chips directly onsite or leave them in a pile for the land stewards to spread appropriately. 

Furthermore, many companies for hire will remove the biomass from your site merely because they do not themselves have a chipper, depriving you of the valuable opportunity to use this carbon rich material to improve your land. 

“Defensible space”

CalFire recommends creating two zones of defensible space around your home, as shown in this image:

Defensible Space - Woodside Fire Protection District

(Image Source)

Some homeowners misinterpret this to mean that they cannot grow anything within 30’ of their home, or if there’s a fire coming people “panic clear” and chop down all of their plants in that 30’ zone. This is not the recommendation. Instead we recommend favoring low growing plants in that zone, maintaining proper distance between plants, and keeping these plants and soils well-hydrated. 

Here’s an image from the Riverside Fire Department showing the effective use of the two zones of defensible space. The inner zone was wet and did not burn thanks to the fire prevention design and efforts from firefighters who were safe to work there, while the outer zone burned. 

(Image Source)

Ladder fuel is a term used for low growing, often dead branches that low-burning fires catch onto, thereby moving the fire from the ground up into the canopy of trees. As a general rule, we recommend removing ladder fuel for as high as you can reach with a pole pruner—about 10’. This wood is great to use for campfires, or to chip and leave as mulch. Areas where the residents use wood from their site for cooking or heating seldom have a problem with ladder fuel.  

As described by Erik Ohlsen, when there were greater populations of bears throughout our region, they would naturally break down these low dead branches by stomping them into the ground, thereby reducing ladder fuel. 

Shaded fuel break

Instead of having a clear cut “fuel break,” consider managing forests by leaving the large and healthy trees intact but clearing much of the dense understory growth, while maintaining small distance between the canopies of the mature trees. There are many good examples of shaded fuel breaks in Santa Cruz County, including a stretch along Empire Grade and San Vicente Redwoods. This area had a prescribed burn recently through a joint effort of the Sempervirens Fund, Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwood League, and CalFire.

As Kat Anderson describes in Tending The Wild, when Europeans first set foot in North America, they remarked how “park-like” and open the forests were. They remarked that one could see through them, and that they were teeming with abundance and biodiversity. In a sense, through the use of cultural burning and the stewardship practices of not only indigenous peoples but also the bear, beaver, elk, and others, these were shaded fuel breaks. While the early settlers mistakenly thought that this abundance was because the indigenous peoples had been “hands off” and were underutilizing the forests, it was the exact opposite. They were very “hands on” through cultural burning, plant selection and breeding, transplanting, and more.

Holistic planned grazing

This is a huge subject worth mentioning here though we cannot do it justice with our limited space. Our rangelands and grasslands have largely been treated as poorly as our forests. Through poor grazing strategies—including both overgrazing and undergrazing—these grasslands contribute to increased fire danger, increased erosion, decreased soil organic matter, and decreased water-holding capacity.

Holistic planned grazing is a strategy for rangeland management that mimics the natural grazing patterns of native ecosystems. In California, for example, there were large populations of elk that would mob graze our grasslands. When in an area, they would eat their favorite foods, stomp down the dead thatch, and pee and poop (aka fertilize) the area extensively. Then they would move on to greener pastures to do the same while leaving the previous area to regenerate. Scientists have discovered that this system is extremely efficient at pulling carbon out of the air and turning it into soil organic matter. Furthermore, this action reduces the build up of dead thatch in grasslands and rangelands which can be a fuel load for grass fires. 

An excellent resource on this subject is “Planned Herbivory in the Management of Wildfire Fuels,” produced by the Society for Range Management. Both educational and practical, the article’s summary states that “Grazing is most effective at treating smaller diameter live fuels that can greatly impact the rate of spread of a fire along with the flame height.

Excellent examples of holistic planned grazing in our region include Paicines Ranch, Markegard Grassfed, and TomKat Ranch. Our permaculture design courses visit one of these sites during our weekend on Broadacre Permaculture: Regenerating Forests and Grasslands.

Passive Water Storage: Rehydrating the earth through swales, gabions, wattle, and rain gardens

Many of the above strategies effectively implement the strategy of “slow it, spread it, sink it”:

  • Slow it: instead of speeding up the velocity by which rainwater leaves the site through downspouts, storm drains, and culverts, we want to slow the water down so it has less erosive potential. 
  • Spread it: instead of concentrating water into pipes and moving it off site, we want to spread it out.
  • Sink it: instead of piping rainwater offsite we want to keep as much water as possible onsite to recharge both surface and deep aquifers. That said, we need to do this in a way that does not impair the structural engineering of our infrastructure. 

Check out the RCD guide “Slow it, Spread it, Sink it.”  


Bioswales are an effective strategy for catching rainwater and sinking it into the land. The most common way permaculturists employ this strategy is through the berm and swale system. Essentially this is done by digging an on-contour ditch (known as a “swale”) that fills up with water like a bathtub, allowing the water to recharge into the earth. The soil from the swale is then piled up on the downhill side (known as a “berm”) to hold the water in place and to conveniently provide for a planting bed. What is planted on this bed will depend entirely on the site and your goals. Learn more about swales on our blog.

Swales constructed during the Santa Cruz Permaculture Food Forests class.

Straw wattle

Another excellent strategy most of us are probably already familiar with is the use of straw wattle. Have you noticed straw wattle around construction sites—those long worms of straw packed in plastic netting and affixed to the ground with pine stakes? The wattle is used to prevent erosion by physically catching sediment as it runs off. 

In addition to helping prevent erosion, straw wattle can also be inoculated with fungi. Folks in other communities devastated by fires have used mushrooms and mycelium for remediation. See our section below on post-fire regeneration for more on mycoremediation.

Brush check dams and gabions

Creating brush check dams and gabions in seasonal drainages is another strategy to slow, spread, and sink water into the landscape. They also make good use of all the vegetation that is cleared to create defensible space and reduce fire load in forested areas. 

A gabion is a low, leaky barrier placed perpendicular to the flow of water within a periodic drainage. Seasonally, running water temporarily backs up behind the gabion and spreads out over more of the drainage’s surface before flowing through and over this permeable dam. Sediment and organic matter build up behind and within the gabion, helping to reduce erosion and stabilize the landscape. This also increases the water-holding capacity of the seasonal waterway, hydrating soil and plant life around it. 

Learn more about brush check dams and gabions in this article on our blog.

Rain gardens

We can also design our landscapes to direct rainwater toward vegetation, allowing it to hydrate plants and sink into the soil. Many landscapes, especially in suburban and urban areas, are designed so that rainwater flows directly into impermeable drains that take it away from our landscapes and into storm drains. 

To rehydrate the landscape and reduce flooding from street run-off, we can create curb-cuts and vegetated infiltration basins along our neighborhood and city streets.

(Image source)

Learn more about harvesting street run-off on the website of Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. On this page, you can explore a DIY curb-cut guide, galleries of photos showing different techniques, information on policy changes, lists of companies that do curb cuts, designs, and more.

“The arid climate in Tucson limits rainfall to approximately 12 inches per year, more than half of which falls during the annual monsoon. Brad Lancaster is a community activist who is well known and respected in the rainwater harvesting community. In the public right of way alone, Lancaster said they are harvesting 600,060 gallons of water per year that was previously lost to runoff and evaporation. One of the most effective strategies he advocates is the curb cut.  Find out more in HARVESTING RAIN.”

A local example of this is the bioswale in the parking lot at Staff of Life in Santa Cruz. In addition to slowing, spreading, and sinking the storm water runoff back into the earth, the roots of plants in the bioswale help filter pollution out of the water:

(Image source)

Active Water Storage: Rainwater tanks, water trucks, ponds, pumps and hoses

There are many good reasons to store water on your site in a tank, pond, or water truck:

  • Firefighters can use that water in an emergency. 
  • In the event that firefighters aren’t able to make it to your site, you can set up pumps and hoses so that you and/or your neighbors can put the fire out yourselves before CalFire gets there. This of course requires that these people are well-trained and know when it’s safer to evacuate.  
  • You can use it to water your land during the dry season. 
  • Ponds, in addition to storing water, also create habitat. When ponds are well-situated they can also be used for flood irrigation in an emergency. 

In California it’s legal to have as many 4,999 gallon or less tanks on your property as you’d like, and they can be daisy chained together. At 5,000 gallons or above permits are required. 

For the zealous amongst us, consider getting a water truck or old fire engine to store water. 

Preparedness Resources

Brown, Valerie. “Can Responsible Grazing Make Beef Climate-Neutral?” Civil Eats, April 10, 2018. https://civileats.com/2018/04/10/can-responsible-grazing-make-beef-climate-neutral/

Castaldo, Giovanni. “Rainwater Harvesting: Berms and Swales.” Santa Cruz Permaculture, August 12, 2019. https://santacruzpermaculture.com/2019/08/berms-swales/ 

Castaldo, Giovanni. “Rainwater Harvesting: Brush Check Dams and Gabions.” Santa Cruz Permaculture, September 11, 2020. https://santacruzpermaculture.com/2020/09/brush-check-dams-gabions/ 

“Chipping Programs.” Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County. 2020. https://www.firesafesantacruz.org/chipping-programs 

“Farm Resilience.” Community Alliance with Family Farmers. 2020. https://www.caff.org/disaster-resilience/ 

“Fire Creates Forest Resilience.” Sempervirens Fund, 2020. https://sempervirens.org/fire-creates-forest-resilience/ 

“Fire Ecology Resources.” Permaculture Skills Center. 2020. https://permacultureskillscenter.org/fire-ecology-resources/ 

“Fire Prevention and Post-Fire Recovery.” Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. 2020. http://www.rcdsantacruz.org/fire.

Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County. “Prepared, Not Scared Wildfire Preparation and Emergency Evacuation Guide.” Fire Safe Santa Cruz County (FSSCC), 2019. https://www.firesafesantacruz.org/wildfire-preparation-and-emergency-evacuation-guide.

“Harvesting Rain.” Arizona Public Media, July 29, 2015, video. https://youtu.be/6cY-DmENV5k 

Nader, Glenn, Zalmen Henkin, Ed Smith, Roger Ingram, and Nelmy Narvaez. “Planned Herbivory in the Management of Wildfi re Fuels.” Society for Range Management, October 2007. https://ucanr.edu/sites/postfire/files/255096.pdf 

“RCD Offers Rebates for Chipping Services for Fire Protection.” Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. May 29, 2014. http://www.rcdsantacruz.org/chipper-rebate-2014 

“Slow it. Spread it. Sink it! A Homeowner’s Guide to Greening Stormwater Runoff.” Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, 2015. https://www.rcdsantacruz.org/images/brochures/pdf/HomeDrainageGuide.v25.pdf 

“Street-Runoff Harvesting.” Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster. 2020. https://www.harvestingrainwater.com/street-runoff-harvesting/ 

Post-Fire Regeneration

Many of our clients and friends are private homeowners and renters asking three questions: 

  1. What can we do to revegetate the land where we live and the surrounding area that burnt?
  2. How can I protect our watershed from the toxic ash from the materials that burnt in our home? 
  3. When we rebuild, what should we build our home out of? How can we use this as an opportunity to build a permaculture homestead that will not only not burn the next time we have a fire but also can play an ongoing role in ecological regeneration? 

Before addressing these important questions, we want to again direct people to the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. Check out the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) cheat sheet on “Post-Fire Recovery Do’s and Don’ts.” They also provide consulting services: 

“Working closely with our federal partner, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the RCD offers post-fire recovery to the community in times of need. These services include on-site technical and planning services to assess post-fire land conditions and recommend appropriate actions, concerning potential harmful debris runoff, erosion and drainage issues, stream impacts, tree health, winter preparedness, private road and culvert damage, and hillslope stability. We can also provide permit assistance for post-recovery actions and help agricultural and forest landowners find and navigate potential funding resources to reduce the cost burden making repairs and protecting the land.”

Additionally, residents are often not allowed back to their sites for months after a fire because of post-fire cleanup done by FEMA and other agencies. We were told this often happens in a three stage process: 

  1. Cleaning up fire suppression efforts, including remediation around fuel breaks that were installed and cleaning up fire retardant. 
  2. Tending to hazards, such as houses that are falling down, landslides, and fallen trees, as well as ash removal (more on this subject below). 
  3. Long-term ecological restoration, which is mostly led by local agencies and citizens.

Because of the many agencies involved in such large-scale efforts, we must consider what’s practical given our delayed reentry time in areas that might lack electricity or water, and how we can work with, instead of against, the regenerative power of natural systems. 

Local resources for regeneration & recovery

Are we missing any local resources? Please let us know by emailing info.santacruzpermaculture@gmail.com.

Revegetation strategies: Seeding vs. natural regeneration

It’s often months before residents are allowed back to their home sites. This is because agencies are doing remediation and cleanup of toxic chemicals, as well as running bulldozers, chainsaws, and chippers en masse. 

When people get back to their sites, we recommend revisiting our earlier discussion on fire ecology before going out to buy and sow seeds of your favorite “erosion control mix.” Perhaps a better strategy is to wait and see what plants grow after the first fall rain–which in recent years has been gentle and good for germination–and help direct revegetation efforts in a favorable direction through encouraging natives and discouraging so-called invasives. 

In that respect, perhaps land stewards can utilize the cleansing effect of fire and the clean slate that’s been provided to bring the land towards greater abundance and functionality. 

The best guide we know of on this subject is the California Native Plant Society’s Fire Recovery Guide

Many native perennial shrubs and trees were likely not damaged or will grow back. Examples include redwood, yerba santa, and manzanita. Let’s encourage these species to regrow. Check to see the plants are truly dead before cutting them out, or just wait. 

The seeds of many native species have been lying dormant in the soil waiting for fire to scarify them and germinate. Let’s encourage these. (Image sources: AP Photo, Photography on the Run, Coe Fire

Toxic ash

Certainly it’s best to avoid using toxic substances in the first place, yet many of our homes have them. Non-stick teflon pans contain PFOA, a chemical made by Dupont which was the subject of the recent film Dark Waters and a $671 million class action lawsuit settlement. PVC, used for plumbing, releases toxic hydrogen chloride gas and dioxins when heated. Refrigerators were made with chlorofluorocarbons prior to being phased out in 1995 at which time they were replaced with hydrofluorocarbons; both are potent greenhouse gases. Electronics such as televisions and computers contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium and brominated flame retardants. Burnt carpet can yield lead oxide, and treated wood can contain copper, chromium and arsenic. And one never knows what concoction of chemicals were lying around in the garage. 

With fire, these chemicals can vaporize into the air, where they either enter the atmosphere or fall back onto the ground with ashes–and either stay there or are carried away by water and ultimately reach waterways and the ocean.  

The current recommended best practice is to remove ash to the landfill. The County of Santa Barbara Ash Management Plan, developed in 2017 after the Thomas Fire, recommends that professional remediators as well as the many land stewards–from street sweepers to landscapers that will inevitably do the work–do the following:

“To clean ash, wear a mask and remember the three C’s, Control, Contain and Capture. 

“Control: Try to control the amount of ash particles that get re-suspended into the air. Avoid using any equipment that blows ash into the air such as standard shop vacuums or leaf blowers. Instead, use household vacuums or shop vacuums with HEPA filters. 

“Contain: Contain ash by gently sweeping indoor and outdoor hard surfaces followed by wet mopping with a damp cloth. Ash may be disposed of in regular trash receptacles in plastic bags. You may also allow water from cleaning to drain into landscaping as ash will not hurt plants or grass. 

“Capture: Protect storm drains from ash and any cleaning chemicals used while cleaning by diverting away from storm drains or recapturing. Ash is highly acidic, which in large amounts can be harmful for people, the environment and aquatic life.”


During our course on regenerating soils we teach about the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of soil. The physical aspects are the basics that everyone needs to know about how soils are made through weathering, what soil texture is (sand, silt, and clay), and how water moves through various soils. The chemical aspects are about soil pH, macro and micro nutrients such as N-P-K, and a discussion about organic versus chemical fertilizers. But the richest part of the conversation is always the biological. In this section we talk about the soil food web, compost and compost tea, cover crops and biological nitrogen fixation, photosynthesis, mycorrhizal fungi, and other geeky subjects. (Learn more about soil on our blog.)

When our soils are alive and thriving, they can do much more than simply serve as a medium for growing plants. Soils high in organic matter better retain water than biologically poor soils, and the various organisms and fungi in active soil can digest and filter not only organic matter but also contaminants in the soil. 

The use of mushrooms and mycelium for remediation has received widespread attention as of late, although we need more data to determine how effective it truly is. Post-fire, a number of communities have employed strategies—such as pasteurized straw wattle inoculated with commercial oyster mushroom spawn, or burlap sacks filled with enzyme-rich spent oyster mushroom substrate (aka “bunker bags”)—in hopes to not only use the physical aspects of wattle but also biological activity to break down compounds in the sediment. 

Groups such as Permaculture Artisans, Sudden Oak Life, and CoRenewal are advancing this conversation by advocating for the use of straw wattle (and other media) inoculated with native bacteria and fungus. 

This approach is consistent with the literature–which is limited–on Indigenous Microorganisms (IMOs), which points out that the microbiology from forests, grasslands, vegetable gardens, and commercial mushroom facilities are all different. The theory holds that in order to use physical and biological aspects of inoculated straw wattle to achieve the maximum benefit for ecosystems post-fire, and to avoid introducing cultures which could be potentially damaging for the native cultures, we should use indigenous microorganisms. 

For example, introducing wattle inoculated with commercial oyster mushroom spawn could not only result in the commercial oyster genetics spreading and outcompeting native oyster cultures that have coevolved in our region, but also miss the opportunity of reculturing the millions of microbes that are uniquely suited to the environment at hand. 

To explore this theory, CoRenewal’s “research goal is to evaluate how fire affects fungi and fungal communities, and to investigate how fungi could be leveraged to support or accelerate post-fire ecosystem regeneration. Furthermore, we will expand and develop our collaborative network, conduct education and outreach with affected communities, disseminate our findings, and refine our recommendations for applying these methods to support ecological regeneration.” Learn more about their work here.

CoRenewal is hosting a webinar related to these topics on September 17: Post-Fire Remediation and Watershed Defense Webinar.

The methods for culturing indigenous microorganisms are many. Here are some resources for further reading:

Rice straw wattles laid over a creek bed after the 2017 North Bay wildfires. (Image source: Bohemian.com)

There is a growing body of promising research on mycoremediation: the use of fungal mycelia for cleanup. In this article for The Counter, Renée Alexander writes, “In the last 15 years, fungi enthusiasts and so-called ‘citizen scientists’ have deployed mushrooms to clean up oil spills in the Amazon, boat fuel pollution in Denmark, contaminated soil in New Zealand, and polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs, in Washington’s Spokane River. Research suggests mushrooms can convert pesticides and herbicides to more innocuous compounds, remove heavy metals from brownfield sites, and break down plastic. They have even been used to remove and recover heavy metals from contaminated water.”

While we wish we could give concrete recommendations for effective cleanup strategies around structures which recently burned–such as “do an oyster myco mulch on the entire site,” which is a common anecdotal recommendation–we don’t yet have the evidence that this is effective enough. As recommended in Alexander’s article, we hope scientists will carefully study bio- and myco- remediation strategies so that we can scale up effective solutions to this ongoing problem. 

Non-toxic and non-flammable homes (or at least less flammable) 

Natural building–building with earthen materials instead of synthetics–is both ancient and modern. On every continent there are examples of structures built with some mixture of clay, sand, and straw that have lasted hundreds if not thousands of years. The subject is too vast to sufficiently treat here in this blog post however we will surface a few key lines of inquiry. Also, we offer a full day of natural building theory and practice in our permaculture design course, and we have a few blog posts on natural building here

Considerations when (re)building a home in fire-prone areas

We spoke with natural builder Janine Björnson about her recommendations for what to consider when (re)building a home with fire prevention in mind. This is a paraphrased summary of what she shared with us:

Everything is going to depend on what your goals are. For many of us, our goals might include:

  • To withstand fire at any cost;
  • To have a home that is helping mitigate climate change (i.e. is carbon sequestering);
  • To not only save the home itself (walls, roof) but also the contents inside.

There are numerous natural building and less-flammable building material options available (see below for some examples), but not every strategy is going to meet all of your goals or make sense for your particular situation. 

Photo by Tree Rozelle (Image source)

For instance, brick is one answer for reducing the flammability of a home, but it’s not the answer to so many other things that might be part of your goals. With the catastrophic fires we’re experiencing today, we are not just talking about building fire-resistant houses but also houses that are carbon negative and help us address the climate emergency. We should be asking ourselves: How can my house have a positive impact on reducing climate change while simultaneously building a structure that is seismically sound and has the greatest chance of not burning down?

It’s all about the details of the design. Here are some details to consider:

  • Select materials that withstand fire.
  • Preventing embers from entering the home: We’ve all seen the photos after a fire where all that’s left is the chimney. We aren’t just trying to save the chimney, or the cob walls, but also the contents of the house. Some methods for keeping embers out of the house include how you design the venting in the attic and basement, as well as adding to your evacuation plan to pull down any curtains and vent the attic. 
  • Roof material: Ceramic tile and metal are good options. A metal roof will melt if the fire comes and is hot enough, but if an ember falls on it you can put it out fairly easily. Compare this with cedar shingle roofs, which would catch fire more easily, burn hotter, and give off toxic fumes. 
  • Super insulated walls help keep the heat from coming inside and catching fire. Straw bale is more insulative than cob, so you can use a combination of materials, such as building with straw bale and also using earth and lime plasters. 

Avoiding toxins in home construction

When you (re)build, think about the toxicity of the products you’re using and seek to eliminate toxins both in the construction and in the items you have in your home. For instance:

  • Avoid using PVC. Instead choose metal or other plastics that are less toxic when burnt, such as:
    • PEX and Blue Loc pipe for plumbing 
    • HDPE for drip irrigation
  • Naturally built homes burn cleaner because they have less vinyl, plastic, and wood. 
  • Avoid teflon pots altogether.
  • Ask yourself: how many electronic devices do I need in my house? And do I have a plan for grabbing all of them during evacuation?

Less-flammable home examples

Any building project in California comes with at least two challenges: meeting building codes (for earthquake safety, for example) and being able to finance the project (such as obtaining a bank loan). Furthermore, some natural buildings still rely on timber frames, so even though these are less flammable they are still quite susceptible to fire. Let’s look at a few natural buildings which have been permitted and successfully built in California:

  • Super-Adobe: “SuperAdobe is a form of earth bag architecture developed by architect and CalEarth founder Nader Khalili. Using long sandbags (“SuperAdobe Bags”), barbed wire, on-site earth and a few tools, Khalili devised a revolutionary building system that integrates traditional earth architecture with contemporary global safety requirements, and passes severe earthquake code tests in California.”

Although not a straw bale home, this plastered house withstood a fire that decimated the houses surrounding it. (Image source)

In addition to natural building strategies, some other less-flammable home styles include:

In addition to the resources above, more natural builders and consultants in our region include:

Post-Fire Regeneration Resources

“After the Fire Do’s and Don’ts.” Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2020. http://www.rcdsantacruz.org/images/After-Fire-Dos-Donts_NRCS.pdf 

Alexander, Renée. “Oyster mushrooms helped clean up after California’s wildfires. Why is it so hard to make a business case for ‘mycoremediation?’” The Counter, February 18, 2019. https://thecounter.org/mycoremediation-radical-mycology-mushroom-natural-disaster-pollution-clean-up/ 

Arkin Tilt Architects. https://www.arkintilt.com/ 

Barnard, Irene. “Wattle Rockers.” Bohemian.com, January 29, 2019. https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/wattle-rockers/Content?oid=8125283 

Boa Constructor. http://buildingnaturally.com/ 

Bode, Taylor and Steph Bode. “Nomadic Roots Photo Book.” Kickstarter, 2019. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nomadicroots/nomadic-roots-photo-book 

California Straw Building Association. https://www.strawbuilding.org/

Carandang, Gil A. “Beneficial Indigenous Organisms (BIM).” Permaculture list-serv, 2013. https://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/permaculture/2013-March/043096.html 

clay, bones and stones. https://www.claybonesandstones.com/ 

“Cob Research Institute’s Cob Code Approved for the 2021 IRC.” Cob Research Institute, 2020. https://www.cobcode.org/code-approved  

Crusberg, Theodore C. “Final Report: Biomineralization of Heavy Metals Within Fungal Mycelia A New Technology for Bioremediation of Hazardous Wastes.” Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 1998. U.S. EPA. https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.highlight/abstract/590/report/F 

“CZU fire remediation team.” Facebook, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/groups/704947570364375 

“CZU Lightning Complex Fire – Landslide Hazards Program.” U.S. Geologic Survey, 2020. https://landslides.usgs.gov/hazards/postfire_debrisflow/detail.php?objectid=299 

Dark Waters – Official Trailer.” Focus Features, September 27, 2019. https://youtu.be/LS5tocVPlGM 

“Denmark navigate sailing towards a sustainable future.” World Sailing, August 12, 2018. https://www.sailing.org/news/87633.php#.X2EIupNKjUp 

“Earthship buildings are fire resistant, not a total loss.” Earthship Biotecture. 2020. https://earthshipbiotecture.com/earthship-buildings-are-fire-resistant-not-a-total-loss/ 

“Emerald Earth.” Straw Clay Wood. 2020. https://strawclaywood.com/photo-albums/emerald-earth/ 

“Fire Prevention and Post-Fire Recovery.” Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. 2020. http://www.rcdsantacruz.org/fire.

“Fire Recovery Guide.” California Native Plant Society, 2019. https://www.cnps.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/cnps-fire-recovery-guide-2019.pdf 

“Fungal Facilitation and Fire.” CoRenewal. 2020. https://www.amazonmycorenewal.org/fungal-facilitation–fire.html 

Hutchins, Shelley D. “What California Needs Now: Affordable Fire-Resistant Homes.” Builder, August 14, 2018. https://www.builderonline.com/building/structure-durability/what-california-needs-now-affordable-fire-resistant-homes_o 

Johnson, Kirk. “Cleanup From California Fires Poses Environmental and Health Risks.” The New York Times, October 16, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/us/california-fires-cleanup.html 

Kumar, Baduru Lakshman and D. V. R. Sai Gopal. “Effective role of indigenous microorganisms for sustainable environment.” 3 Biotech, 5(6) (2015): 867–876. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4624139/ 

“Lytton Springs: A Building Made of Straw.” Ridge Vineyards. 2020. https://www.ridgewine.com/about/explore/lytton-springs-a-building-made-of-straw/ 

McAllister, Sue. “California Builds With Straw Bales.” The Washington Post, April 28, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/realestate/2001/04/28/california-builds-with-straw-bales/9ca088e3-6993-4db8-93d4-d5b8294b091a/ 

McNeil, Mea. “Straw Bale Construction: The Ultra-Ecological House.” The Craftsmanship Initiative, Fall 2018. https://craftsmanship.net/straw-bale-construction-the-ultra-ecological-house/ 

McPherson, Alexandra, Beverley Thorpe, and Ann Blake. “Brominated Flame Retardants in Dust on Computers: The Case for Safer Chemicals and Better Computer Design.” Clean Production Action, June 2004. http://svtc.org/wp-content/uploads/bfr_report_pages1-43.pdf 

Morrison, Andrew. “Straw Bale Homes Protect Against Fire Where Conventional Homes Fail.” StrawBale.com, 2007. https://www.strawbale.com/straw-bale-fire-resistant-southern-california/ 

Muddbums. https://muddbums.com/index.html 

Nelson, Jan. n.d. “Fire Safe Landscaping.” Gardening Tips for the Santa Cruz Mountains (blog). http://www.jannelsonlandscapedesign.com/wordpress/?s=fire.

“PVC: The Poison Plastic.” Greenpeace, August 18, 2003. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/report/2009/4/pvc-the-poison-plastic.html 

“Resources – for those seeking & those offering support & general info re: CZU Fire in Santa Cruz County.” The Santa Cruz Hub for Sustainable Living, 2020. http://www.santacruzhub.org/ 

Rhodes, Christopher J. “Mycoremediation (bioremediation with fungi) – growing mushrooms to clean the earth.” Chemical Speciation & Bioavailability, 26:3 (2004): 196-198. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3184/095422914X14047407349335 

“Robert Bilott.” The Right Livelihood Foundation, 2017. https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/laureates/robert-bilott/ 

“Santa Barbara County Plan for Ash Management for the Thomas Fire.” County of Santa Barbara. 2020. https://www.countyofsb.org/asset.c/3496 

Stone, Maddie. “The Plan to Mop Up the World’s Largest Oil Spill With Fungus.” Motherboard Tech by Vice, March 5, 2015. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jp5k9x/the-plan-to-mop-up-the-worlds-largest-oil-spill-with-fungus 

“Strawbale Finishing.” 301 Monroe, April 17, 2010. https://www.301monroe.com/category/strawbale/ 

“Straw Bale.” The Natural Builders. 2020. https://www.naturalbuilding.com/natural-building/straw-bale/ 

“SuperAdobe: Powerful Simplicity.” California Institute of Earth Architecture. 2020. https://www.calearth.org/intro-superadobe 

“The Fungi Project.” The Lands Council. 2020. https://landscouncil.org/fungi-project 

Thwaites, J. M., Roberta L. Farrell, Shona Duncan, Richard Lamar, and R. B. White. “Fungal-Based Remediation: Treatment of PCP Contaminated Soil in New Zealand.” Environmental Bioremediation Technologies, January 2006. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231337184_Fungal-Based_Remediation_Treatment_of_PCP_Contaminated_Soil_in_New_Zealand 

“Using Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms.” Growing Organic. 2020. https://growingorganic.com/ipm-guide/using-beneficial-indigenous-microorganisms/

Public Policy and Future Directions

As with many of the disasters we’re facing in 2020, these catastrophic wildfires are the result of systemic problems that have been ongoing for decades. In addition to the effects of climate change in making fire season more and more damaging and deadly each year, the wildfires raging in California this year are exacerbated by labor shortages and poor fire suppression policies. 

Prison labor

Democracy Now! produced this informative piece on the labor shortage issue, which is due to California’s reliance on prison labor and the effects of COVID-19. In the report, they “look at how more than 1,300 incarcerated firefighters — who are annually deployed to the frontlines in California for just $1 an hour — are fighting back the blazes as coronavirus outbreaks in state prisons limit how many are available to fight the fires, and lay bare the state’s reliance on prison labor to control its ever-growing wildfire season with an exploitative system many have called slave labor.” This issue presents a clear example of an intersection between human rights violations, climate change, and our ineffective healthcare system. A foundational contributor to each of these problems is our capitalist economic system that values profit over people and planet. 

Recently, a bill was proposed in California (AB 2147) to streamline the process for former inmates to become firefighters after their release. But more needs to be done to address the exploitative system and address the lack of stability in the labor force available to fight fires.

Fire policy

(Image source)

The labor shortage for fighting fires in California is related to the fact that CalFire is underfunded and understaffed–and the catastrophic fires of recent years are bigger and more intense than the fires of the past.  As we mentioned at the beginning of this series, the scale of the fires we are facing in our national forests is well beyond what individuals and even local communities can resolve alone. We must also look at what we can do together to shift policy for how our public commons such as national parks, forests, and Bureau of Land Management land are stewarded.

CalFire and state departments of forestry and fire protection throughout the U.S. have also had poor fire suppression policy over many decades. Many at CalFire have changed their tune towards more controlled burns in recent years, but the scale needed to address the current situation will require major policy changes.

Michael Kodas writes in an article for Inside Climate News

“But the zero tolerance approach toward wildfire that dominated U.S. forest policy throughout the 20th century had unintended and devastating consequences in many western forests. In some that historically burned with low severity ground fires as often as every two years, the lack of fire allowed trees and vegetation that would normally have burned off to flourish. 

“A century after the Big Blowup [in 1910, when ‘Hundreds of wildfires exploded over an area the size of Connecticut in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana’], some western forests had more than 20 times as many trees as they did before the nation’s attempt to eradicate fire from its forests. The lack of flames in previously fire-prone forests encouraged housing and other development to encroach ever deeper into the thickening forests, just as the warming and drying climate left those heavy loads increasingly primed to burn. Yet efforts to thin overgrown forests with prescribed burns—fires intentionally set to reduce the fuel load—have repeatedly been stymied by lack of funding and public resistance, even after disastrous wildfires have emphasized the need to ‘reintroduce’ fire to the West’s woodlands to return them to health. Last month, California agencies signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to jointly thin a million acres a year of the state’s forests by 2025. But far less ambitious forest thinning projects have failed in the past.”

Indigenous land practices 

Clearly the current mainstream approach to fire policy in California and beyond has not been effective in the face of drought, severe heat, and other factors caused by the climate emergency. As we advocate for new land management and fire-related policies, we should be finding ways to adopt indigenous land practices by listening and working with those whose ancestors have been tending this land since the beginning of time. Our land management decisions should be made with indigenous voices actively at the table helping to guide the discussion. 

Some resources and articles related to indigenous land practices, the history of fire policy in the U.S., as well as indigenous land reparations and the #LandBack movement (which are about indigenous control of and access to ancestral lands and subsequently wiser, TEK-based land management), are below. You’ll notice that some of these articles are also listed under Cultural Burning and Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Part One of this series, but they are worth including again here:


The policy proposals and advocacy around this is building momentum with how devastating the fire season has been (and how impactful it’s been to people all over the west coast with the horrible air quality). As we learn of new policies to support at different levels of government and hear about groups that are organizing around these issues, we will add to this section and send an update out through our newsletter and social media channels (linked from the top right header on our website here).

We’ve mentioned numerous organizations above that will be vital collaborators in these efforts, such as the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County and Fire Safe Councils throughout California. We look forward to learning about and supporting other organizations working to address these catastrophic fires through collective action and policy change.

One example of a partnership between indigenous groups and the Forest Service is already taking place, and we hope to see more of this: “In Northern California, the Karuk and Yurok tribes have partnered with the Forest Service to manage land for traditional values and wildfire management. Studies have shown that the two goals work hand in hand.” (NPR)

If you are aware of policies, organizations, and other news related to collective organizing around any of the topics explored in this series of articles, please email us at info.santacruzpermaculture@gmail.com

We appreciate you taking the time to read this series of articles! We hope that this can serve as a resource to folks in our community and beyond who are sifting through all of the information available on these subjects. We welcome your feedback and will continue to update these articles as new information and best practices become available. 

Public Policy and Future Directions Resources

“‘A Human Tragedy’: Wildfires Reveal California’s Reliance on Incarcerated Firefighters.” Democracy Now!, August 25, 2020. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/8/25/california_wildfires_incarcerated_firefighters 

Cagle, Susie. “’Fire is medicine’: the tribes burning California forests to save them.” The Guardian, November 21, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/nov/21/wildfire-prescribed-burns-california-native-americans 

Eiseman, Sonja. “#LandBack is Climate Justice.” Lakota People’s Law Project, August 14, 2020. https://www.lakotalaw.org/news/2020-08-14/land-back-climate-justice 

Farivar, Cyrus. “New California law to make it easier for former inmate firefighters to turn pro.” NBC News, September 11, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/proposed-california-law-would-make-it-easier-former-inmate-firefighters-n1239833 

Jordan, Rob. “Native approaches to fire management could revitalize communities, Stanford researchers find.” Stanford News, August 27, 2019. https://news.stanford.edu/2019/08/27/traditional-fire-management-help-revitalize-american-indian-cultures/ 

“Land Reparations & Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit.” Resource Generation, 2020. https://resourcegeneration.org/land-reparations-indigenous-solidarity-action-guide/ 

Kodas, Michael. “Huge Western Fires in 1910 Changed US Wildfire Policy. Will Today’s Conflagrations Do the Same?” Inside Climate News, September 11, 2020. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11092020/western-wildfires-big-blowup-forest-policy 

Sommer, Lauren. “To Manage Wildfire, California Looks To What Tribes Have Known All Along.” NPR, August 24, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/24/899422710/to-manage-wildfire-california-looks-to-what-tribes-have-known-all-along 

“Wildland Fire Program.” Karuk Tribe. https://www.karuk.us/index.php/departments/natural-resources/eco-cultural-revitalization/wildland-fire-program 

Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council. http://culturalfire.org/our-mission/ 

Yurok Tribe. https://www.yuroktribe.org/

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