Our relationship with fire began indirectly with Homo erectus around 1 million years ago – this was a massive evolutionary turning point. It transformed what we eat, increased our activities after dark, it aided in protection from other predators, as well as providing warmth just to mention a few life-changing benefits. It allowed us to completely shift our focus and our trajectory.
In the not-so-distant past, (and in some cases our present) indigenous cultures around the world used controlled fires ceremoniously. Through generations of observation and interaction with nature, these cultures were so aware of the shifting of the seasons, the plants’ needs, the movements of the animals, and the change of winds, that they timed their ‘pyro-parties’ perfectly.
These fires were necessary to keep the balance. This transformative flame helped diversify the biome, it encouraged new plant growth, especially the important food plants, supporting a greater diversity of animal species, and most of all it increased the overall resilience of the environment.
This concise science of ceremonial burning cleaned the land, it rid the environment of fuel buildup, while also increasing soil fertility, evidence of this kind of holistically minded pyro-practice results in what we term the ‘Terra Preta’ of the Amazon, this extremely fertile soil reaches down to a depth of 2 meters. This soil shows higher quantities of nutrients and better retention of these nutrients than surrounding infertile soils. There was an awareness, an accumulation of dynamically balanced, intimate knowledge, and a symbiotic relationship with nature and fire within diverse ecosystems.
The land was a well-kept garden, and everything had its place, even fire.
In some hunter-gatherer cultures around the world, smoke on the horizon is a symbol of continuity and assurance that people are looking after the land, but when the Spanish reached the well-kept gardens of what’s now known as California, fire was not seen as such. The Spaniards’ relationship with fire was one of fear and religious superstition. Fire is associated with hell, it evoked images of eternal damnation, and pyrophobia went on a world tour. Now we see smoke as a sign of distress, and destruction. And because of our fear and resistance to understanding the natural laws, the suppression of fire has indirectly caused the worst wildfires due to fuel accumulation, we have unintentionally created our apocalyptic fears through our pyrophobia.
The world’s most devastating wildfires that recently ripped through California, Australia, Greece, and Russia are nature’s way of forcing us to pay attention to her again.
The question is, are we willing to learn and adapt, are we ready to listen and face this force that is fighting to be recognized?
Here in the Western Cape with it’s hot dry summers, and the cold wet winters, we have an incredibly diverse ecosystem hanging on a thread, here we have thousands of species of fynbos, a known pyrophilic (fire-loving) vegetation. To thrive it needs a fire every few years, fire plays an important role in its germination, and much like a phoenix, new growth arises from the ashes.
The most recent wildfire in Cape Town was fuelled by the invasive alien pine towering above the indigenous shrubs which lead to the devastating loss of decades of research, priceless artworks, and homes.
So what can we do about it?
This is our moment to accept feedback and apply self-regulation, seeing as fire is here to stay, how can we design for disaster and heal our fear of fire?
It all comes down to fire escaping, observing our environment, and the direction of winds, all areas of possible fire approach. We can design our homes and surrounding gardens to be the most resilient to fire. By overlaying our zone maps we can get an idea of how often we interact with different areas surrounding the house. The frequency with which we interact with the landscape in each zone surrounding the house and the likelihood of fire advancing through that zone will help guide our decision-making when it comes to creating a Regenerative Firescape.
Fire buffers around the home stop the spread of fire and ensure safety.
The perimeter zone is the boundary of your property, where you would plant with low-growing, fleshy-leaved ground covers, fire-resistant hedging plants, and isolated forest trees.
One needs to be mindful of keeping the understory of trees clear of any dead, or dry plant material at the base of any trunks to stop fires climbing up to the canopy. Spacing is key. Large succulent aloes are fire resistant and most of them are medicinal, and some have beautiful flowers attracting birdlife and beneficial insects they also resprout after a fire.
The second line of defense against fire would be the garden zone, studies show that the greatest threat to homes catching fire is mostly due to flying embers, and the best line of defense is by creating impediments with intelligently selected and placed vegetation. These ember traps halt their advance by creating low-pressure pockets on the sheltered side of trees and the bushes allow airborne embers to drop to the ground. Unwatered native plants do well in these fiery circumstances. See a list of species below.
Fire breaks are actually less effective against airborne embers, and cannot be depended on to keep a hope safe, large expanses of open ground create highways for wind-driven embers, however, it is useful for access and provide safe evacuation. Fire breaks can be formed by ponds, river areas, summer green vegetation, sappy plant crops, or even roads. It doesn’t have to be an unsightly barren strip of land. Form follows function, and a home orchard would make excellent ember traps, with regular irrigation increases moisture and decreases the intensity of a fire front. However, the spacing must be so that you cannot see to the other side of the orchard because that is a wind tunnel, therefore defeating the purpose of the ember trap.
Life after the fire goes on, the raw landscapes are tender and if the land hasn’t been designed well and tended to, the soil becomes extra vulnerable to erosion. With this erosion comes mass sedimentation, alteration of stream beds, not to mention damage to property and infrastructure.
The exposed soil starts to exhibit water repellency due to the heat damaging the waxes within the soils. Not to mention the runoff and debris can overwhelm stormwater drainage systems which can contribute to extensive erosion elsewhere.
So how do we heal our charred landscapes when it needs it most?
- Drain Water – All water pathways must be cleaned of debris..
- Divert Sheeting Water – Driveways, roadways, sidewalks, and parking lots are often designed to sheet their runoff to the landscape. If this is the case on your property, divert that runoff away from your landscape and toward the storm-drain system.
- Minimize Traffic – Keep foot and equipment traffic off burnt landscapes..
- Watering – A recently burned landscape absolutely needs water, but there are two distinct types: The first watering is aimed at breaking the soil’s repellency layer. This watering is superlight. The goal is to water only the top quarter-inch of soil. Once the repellency layer is broken, deeper waterings should begin. The goal is to get the water 4 inches deep and encourage seeds, roots, and surviving plants to sprout.
- Leave the Debris – Do not clean your landscape—the debris on your injured site provides much-needed protection. Any plant that sprouts after fire should be encouraged.
Fire is a force we need to understand. It has the power to transform landscapes, it melts solids into liquids, it solidifies earth as art, or crockery, it provides homes to microorganisms living in the soil with biochar, it is with us with every breath we take, the combustion within our lungs, burning that which is no longer necessary. Fire is within us. It is a part of our very essence. When we heal our relationship with fire, we can reconnect with the Earth, and with more understanding, and awareness we can arise again from the ashes a little more resilient than before.
Fire resistant plants:
such as Leucadendron salignum, Chondropetalum tectorum, Erica spp., Maytenus oleoides, Brachylaena discolour, indigenous Salviaspp. (Salvia africana caerulea, Salvia africana-lutea), Pelargonium cucullatum, king protea (Protea cynaroides), Felicia echinata, wild olive (Olea europeana subsp. Africana), wild peach (Kiggelaria africana), glossy currant (Searsia syn. Rhus lucida).
Corky bark: Leucospermum cococarpodendron, Protea nitida, Mimetes cucullatus, Aloe plicatus.
Bulbs that resprout: Agapanthus, watsonia, Haemanthus coccineus, Cyrtanthus ventricosus, Kniphofia praecox.
Low growing ground covers with fleshy leaves:
- Vygies, (Lampranthus, Malephora, Drosanthemum, Delosperma and Carpobrotus), Gazania, Arctotis, Cliffortia ferruginea, Aloe brevifolia and other suitable ground-covering aloes.
- Bulbs that resprout: Tulbaghia violacea, agapanthus, watsonia.
- Screening or hedging plant that resprout or do not burn easily: Krantz aloe (Aloe arborescens), other suitable aloes, dune crowberry (Searsia crenata syn. Rhus crenata), Searsia glauca, glossy currant (Searsia lucida), Tarchonanthus camphorates, Pterocelastrus tricuspidatus, Osteospermum moniliferum, milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme).
Forest trees that do not burn easily:
Cape holly (Ilex mitis), Cape beech (Rapanea melanophloeos), wild almond (Brabejum stellatifolium), rooiels or butterspoon tree (Cunonia capensis), including indigenous cherry (Maurocenia frangularia), and rock elder (Canthium mundianum), tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida).