I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the California hills that have been on fire for the last four days. I know every canyon, fire trail, and home up there. Intimately. I say “up there,” because, as I’m write this, I’m down on the valley floor watching the fire burn across those beloved hills of mine. Having grown up in this area, I have seen my share of wildfires, but nothing compares to what I witnessed on Sunday night, and have continued to witness to this moment.
My explorations and time spent in these hills as a child was a result of my troubled home. I would take off first thing in the morning, with my canteen full of water, crude provisions, and the supplies I deemed necessary to find respite among the oaks, boulders, and hills. I would spend days and weeks constructing massive forts, sometimes built right into the hillsides using only the materials immediately surrounding the site.
I would move out towards a destination, be it an unknown valley, a steep grassy knoll, or a vineyard that was set off in the distance framed by oak trees. I would camp there for days at a times and invite my friends to stay with me. We would hunt, forage, and leave trouble behind us. The junction of the natural and built environment, understanding it, and building in it, has always been that respite for me. To this day, and especially now as a budding architect (much of my work is in the Napa Valley) instead of massive forts, that connection is pivotal to everything I do.
My life as a designer makes me see this tragedy through the same lens I see everything: architecture, and its capacity to heal.
This weekend, a seemingly normal fire started on the very tip top of Atlas peak, which I could see from my vantage point. I wasn’t worried—fire, drought, pestilence are all part of living in this part of the country. But then, because of the winds, the fire went from normal to scary to deeply abnormal. In a matter of minutes, the fire was down among the buildings near Silverado Country Club. A few minutes later, the fire had jumped the valley—something I’d never seen before—and is now burning, close to 9% contained, on both the west and east sides of the valley.
I sent my wife and two children to my in-laws’ place north of Sacramento. They’re safe, and I’m grateful they have a place to go. But I am still here; this is my home. I am here, on-call for my friends who are still threatened by fire. There is no way for me to just leave the community here just because it is too smoky; this is the time to stay rooted. To help. Because it is in these times that the community really comes together.
These last few days are unprecedented in the scope of the damage, but not in the way in which our state is able to come together in the face of challenges. In my forty-plus years of living here, I’ve never seen anything like this. But I did witness the Loma Prieta earthquake. the big 1981 fire (a blaze that scorched 23,600 acres of Napa Valley within 24 hours), and the recent Napa earthquake. Nothing compares to what is happening around us right now. Nothing prepared us. And yet, I know that we can rebuild.
This fire is not even contained yet, nor is it near its end, and with new red flag warnings coming in by the day we are all bracing ourselves. When a close friend called me on Monday morning, we both couldn't help being overrun by our emotions after discovering that everyone we knew was safe. I know that other families weren’t so lucky.
”Safe” doesn’t begin to cover the emotional devastation of losing homes, streets, entire neighborhoods, as happened in Coffey Park in nearby Santa Rosa. My neighbors and friends I have shared tears, hugs, and smiles. We know that these are coping mechanisms, both in the moment, and for the long-term. As a designer of the built environment, I know that one of the ways I will begin coping with this loss is by thinking about a central question: How are we going to rebuild?
I have been a maker, builder, and fixer for as long as I can remember. I have always organized myself to the environment around me through the built world through steel, wood, stone, and glass. And so I cannot help to ask myself two questions: How can we prevent something like this from happening again? More importantly, how can we take what we know and rebuild even stronger?
How can we build in a way that highlights the resilience all of us feel? The way in which we are able to take a moment, and pause, and feel the depth of the smoke and the darkness of the sky but also the way in which the sun pierces through. The way in which I know that buildings crumble and others are built.
Architecture is often seen as a luxury product; a tiny percentage of American buildings are designed by architects. A disaster can show us how meaningful architecture truly is. Architects are trained to look at detail, to think ahead. We have been trained to believe that architecture has the power to change lives. In times like this, I like to think it can.
It is still too early to draw up specific plans, but I have some ideas for moving forward. We must both accept and embrace the local environment. It is dry here. October is hot. For many reasons, these climate patterns are unlikely to change anytime soon. I propose limiting direct access to fuels, and architectural reliance on fuels.
I suggest starting with a comprehensive perimeter plan so that houses won’t immediately catch fire just because the trees already have. I emphasize, with every project I build, ensuring that there are no vents in the roof, foundation, or anywhere at the perimeter; no way for embers to penetrate. And then, and not just because I’m a hardcore modernist: build in concrete, steel, and glass.
I have always believed that architecture can provide hope to those who have lost something. Embedded into the rhetoric and the practice of healing is the notion of rebuilding. I believe that my friends and I can help this community rebuild—physically, spiritually, emotionally.
Brandon Jorgensen is a home designer based in Napa Valley.