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Expecting the Unexpected:

Design ForCatastrophe
By Andrew Goodheart Brown

Andrew is a member of Earthaven Ecovillage. He teaches permaculture design as a member of the Ecovillage Training Center faculty  at The Farm in Tennessee and Culture's Edge at Earthaven in North Carolina in addition to consulting overseas. He can be reached at

The following article originally appeared in The Permaculture Activist November 1996, #35 which had the theme of Village Design.


Waking up...

If most readers are anything like me, the mention of designing for localized catastrophes elicits a "...yeah, yeah, I know..." response, followed by skimming the material through to the next topic. This has been my response, even though I would say I know better. However, events of the past year have awakened me from my slumber of ignorance, and changed my perceptions of the utter importance of design for natural catastrophes.

Fire comes calling

On the last morning of a 3-day Ecovillage Design course held last April at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, Max Lindegger was showing us an exercise he had employed at Findhorn to help residents there envision cleansing the landscape of old constructions as a prelude to fresh design thinking. As he described wiping away the old as if it were so many papers on a wall, Max swept his long arms dramatically across the horizon. At just that moment Training Center coordinator Albert Bates strode urgently into the meeting space to announce a fire in the tractor barn; all hands were needed! Wondering how life could so fantastically mimic art, we scrambled for the doors - 50 people from all walks of life, who'd been together less than 72 hours, diving in a controlled panic for scraps of support: caps, boots, water bottles. Out of our fleeting recollections of the scene and with the help of some of the youth from the Farm School across the road, various shovels and rakes were rounded up, and within a few moments all participants were packed into a motley caravan of vehicles following a lead car towards the barn.

A billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the forest ahead resolved into a scene of intense danger: the whole structure of the barn was aflame, the raging firestorm whipped to a frenzy by a strong breeze blowing across the adjacent field. Nearby trees exploded into flame. The barn was set back into the forest where the open ridge began to drop into a wooded valley. An impenetrable wall of heat pressed out from the fire nearly a hundred feet in all directions, igniting leaves and duff on the forest floor and setting the smaller branches of the canopy to burning. Spot fires leapt ahead of the front as exploding embers cascaded downwind. The fire began spreading down the small valley, threatening nearby businesses and homes located a scant hundred meters away. Grabbing rakes and shovels we spread out and began pulling the smoldering duff back to create fire breaks ahead of the flames.

No water mains were accessible (the biggest supply line was only 2"), nor any large water storages, so others of our crew headed for the nearest house taps, scanning the landscape for buckets and containers in a desperate attempt to slake the ravenous hunger of the fire. Two hundred yards up the road the residents of the next house were surprised to learn of the fire raging nearby as our volunteer firefighters commandeered a garden hose and trash cans to begin supplying a thin stream of the precious liquid to a nascent bucket brigade. The output of the hose was pitifully slow and meager compared to the fury of the raging fire, but they began ferrying cans filled with water back to the fire front, and in doing so, discovered an escaped aerial bomb that had erupted in a small blaze well out of sight of us scurrying fire-breakers. They efficiently put it out, leaving a seven-foot-wide blackened tattoo just 20 meters from a nearby residence.

Roving teams of shovel-wielding troopers, their bandana-wrapped faces smudged with smoke, worked around the edges stamping out smoldering piles of leaves, while a hastily formed chorus line splashed water at the base of trees ahead of the fire front. At one instant, the wind dropped, the breeze-driven flames changed direction, and-at last behaving favorably-they raced uphill, back towards what had been the tractor barn; the fire, in effect, had created its own back burn. Ceasing its advance, the fire was contained, and within moments the local fire department arrived. All that was left to be done was to spray down the smoking carcass of the barn.

Learning the lessons

Afterwards, as we were eating lunch, I conducted a quick interview of each person, asking, "what did you learn from this experience?" With the awesome power of fire still vivid in our minds, the answers provided important clues for designing against fire catastrophe. Two of the most noted observations were the great value of roads as firebreaks, and the tendency of fire to move upslope. The one place where the fire stopped cold was at the road: no more combustible material (In the case of a tree-tunneled road, this would not be so). As mentioned above, the moment the wind off the ridge slowed, the fire rushed uphill, back upon its own path, creating a natural backfire.

It was obvious to almost everyone in our group that as permaculture designers we must be aware of the multiple functions of every road placement as a fire break, and that Zone 1 landscape design should discourage fire moving in, especially from down slope. Even with fire's tendency to move uphill, a home needs to have some firebreak on all sides. This could include: a chicken run, a roadway, a pond, garden space, or short-cropped grass. No conifer-lined driveway, please! (This makes an irresistible fire alley leading right to your house.)

Another point mentioned repeatedly among the impromptu firefighters: have fire extinguishers handy, and make sure they are operable. Tragically, the first person on the scene of the tractor barn fire rushed up when the fire was small - hence containable - with an extinguisher that failed to operate. In the early stage of a fire, an intervention point exists where the least amount of effort achieves the greatest effect. A working extinguisher or other appropriate tool applied at the right point in the early phase of a fire can prevent a tragedy.

Many people commented on the need for stored water - pumped water can be more than adequate for domestic and agricultural needs, but still fall far short of what is needed for fire control. That water needs to be available near every building-no less in rural areas than in urban-thus, catchment from every roof seems advisable. Other sensible suggestions included making a central location for storage of fire fighting tools, training fire response organizers, and establishing and practicing community fire plans and response.

Lastly, storage of combustible materials around a structure was noted as a time bomb ticking away. (How many of us readers have similar materials stored in and around our homes and businesses, and have been lulled by the passage of time into not considering the potential dangers?)

An ounce of prevention...

The overwhelming experience of most of us was awe and astonishment at the power and rapidity with which fire moves. There can be no substitute for preparation. In the event of fire, there is no time to develop resources; they must be already at hand, their use must be familiar and practiced, and there should be many layers of redundancy in the systems of response. The shock of encountering the fire left many of us in numb confusion, taking away the little power we did have to make a difference. Thus, experience and training for fire are necessary to overcome the body's natural fear and flight responses.

Almost all of us commented upon the value of community, and that a group of folks -going just on gut reaction- can achieve quite a lot.

In summary, design for prevention of fire-induced loss needs to include: strategically placed roads and ponds, low combustible zone 1 area, water catchment, functioning extinguishers and other fire-fighting equipment at hand, and a planned community response.

Water's Extremes

Two catastrophic events moved through Earthaven Ecovillage in 1996, leaving unmistakable footprints of destruction, and alerting us to the power of natural phenomena: the extreme faces of water. The aftermath of a severe ice storm in February left Earthaven's woodlands looking like a war zone. The destruction to trees was painful to see: broken trunks and snapped branches in every direction. Residents said it also sounded like a battle zone, with continual snapping and crashing throughout the night. (The storm left a plethora of wildlife trees and far too many shiitake mushroom logs).

The situation generated two layers of concern. First, quite a few big trees went down, enough to spook the community into wanting all trees taken down within falling distance of future dwellings. The result of this was a more thorough look at the role and quality of trees in the Zone 1 landscape. Indeed, trees leaning towards dwelling sites were marked for removal (to be sawn into lumber and used in the buildings), and all community members were encouraged to mark any trees in the area that they felt attached to or special towards. The community's Site Committee and Keeper of the Trees evaluated potential safety concerns, then, in effect, the remaining trees in the village area were timbered by horse loggers and cut into lumber on site by a portable sawmill. Trees also blocked our road immediately after the storm, raising questions of evacuation, supply to an isolated rural settlement, and having equipment on hand to clear large numbers of downed trees.

The second concern was of a damaged forest made more vulnerable to fire. The broken timber was primarily mature and dying jack and short-leaf pine and some red oaks. With a massive amount of combustible litter on the forest floor, the summer and fall ahead looked to be an especially dangerous time. A regular program of selective harvest will eventually reduce the overburden of dying pines (which reflects the successional stage of this young forest) and speed succession toward a more stable species composition. We can also expect to design our road system to create firebreaks around future dwelling areas.

The Power of Flowing Water   mouseanim

As it turned out, the following early autumn was a wet season, which relieved us of concern about fire during this usually dry period. But the rains brought another form of danger. After two especially heavy nights of rain and thunderstorm, a 400-year storm event descended upon the mountains surrounding Earthaven, dropping 11 inches of rain in three hours. The earth was already saturated from a month of almost daily rain: there was no place for the water to go but downhill. And that it did!

The creeks in the Earthaven watershed had been flowing without problem-even with all the previous rains-yet under torrential downpour the creek waters rose several feet within 15 minutes, inundating all the adjacent floodplain: two cars floated downstream, the lower section of an "Airstream" trailer near the creek was buried in large river rock, a massive oak footbridge (35 feet long, 29 inch diameter) previously perched five feet above creek level washed several hundred feet downstream, and all three stream fords and footbridges blew out. In addition, the creeks jumped their beds in several locations, scoured out several sections of road surface (removing several thousand dollars of freshly laid rock and gravel), and at one vulnerable spot, the creek jumped its meander and took a huge bite several feet into our main road, leaving just enough room for a light vehicle to squeeze by between the drop-off and an up-sloped cliff. In effect, the community was cut off: no other way in or out, except by foot.

To pitch the drama even higher, the flood roared through at midnight, when a response to it was most difficult. The waters obviously disrupted the patterns of many animals besides the humans. One particularly disgruntled copperhead (a poisonous snake) struck a community member (though with little effect as it hit the ankle bone), another man was nearly swept away in his car, the phone line was cut by the flood waters, and Hurricane Fran was due to hit the next night.

The story goes on, (but not to leave the reader suspended, Fran never showed her face in western NC), the cars were dug out and moved to higher ground before being hauled to the local mechanics-one is still in use, although its owner says that on occasion it releases a smell of mud and salamanders; the other didn't respond to resuscitation. The road was moved several feet away from the stream cut, and the stream rerouted at that spot. However, its natural propensity is to move in the direction that the road happens to occupy.

From a village design perspective, these disasters contain a silver lining, for they bring to the forefront the necessity that design must include and respect all possibilities of extreme natural phenomena, including fire, flood, and ice. (Wind and earthquake are also possible catastrophes, but haven't struck us yet.) They also reveal to us the force of the elements we must reckon with. We are better informed of the potential flows of water across our road, for example, and can more accurately place berms, drains and revetments to divert future floodwaters and reinforce vulnerable streambanks. We have learned that maintenance of our streambanks is important to prevent the damming effects of fallen logs. We will not use floodplain areas for parking, let alone for buildings. We will prepare evacuation plans, take care to have emergency supplies well cached, and look into back-up communication systems.

We often excuse shortcuts in implementing thorough design under the illusion of "too costly, not enough money available, would be nice to do but..." Yet not to consider, or worse, to ignore these implications, may result in unnecessary loss of life or property to a family, community, or village. One only needs to look catastrophe squarely in the face once to learn the cost of ignoring the power of nature. Permaculture seeks to avoid these disastrous potentials through observation followed by good, thorough design patterning, working with rather than against the forces of nature-both wonderful and fierce, thereby creating sustainable relationships with each other and our surroundings.

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