Fire and Rain: The Role of Rainwater Harvesting in Creating Resilient and Fire-Resistant Landscapes

By Jesse Savou, ARCSA A.P., founder and owner of BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment Systems

This article was written in response to the October 2017 wildfires that devastated California. 


Fire and Rain: The North Bay Wildfire tears through a housing development

The North Bay Wildfires of October, 2017 were the most devastating in California history, because of their impact on housing.

The devastating wildfires of 2017 brought themes of resilience to the forefront in northern California’s North Bay Region. As local communities rebuild, we reflect on the effects of fire storming over the landscape and wonder what we could do better to create fire-resistant landscapes.

Environmental issues compound. While fire grabbed our attention most recently, had we already forgotten the historic six-year drought that preceded it? As the owner of a rain barrel company (launched in 2012) I witnessed frenzy to harvest water growing every year as we entered our second through sixth consecutive years of drought. In 2016, we had one very wet year, and the urgency to become water stewards all but drained away. Then came the fires. 

While climate change ushers in more extreme swings in temperatures and precipitation rates, in an interrelated matrix, it also seems we are left more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Environmental stewards point out that California is a fire ecology: Healthy forest succession is defined by cycles of low-intensity fire and regrowth.


Humans and Nature (or Human Nature)

But human communities sprout up and understandably don’t want fire in the backyard. We suppress it. We create environments where large browsing mammals can’t coexist and their role in controlling low-burning fuel load is eliminated. 

Meanwhile, as natural groundcover is replaced by hardscape mile by mile, (think buildings, roadways, parking lots, and even lawns), rather than creating fire-resistant landscapes, we’ve built a landscape that’s carefully designed to shed water away. This comes in direct opposition to Mother Nature’s preference, to welcome rainfall in to hydrate soils and recharge groundwater.

Without knowing any better, we have created an environment that is highly vulnerable to drought and fire… And we just witnessed the compounded effects of both.

But do we know better? I certainly think so. During each year of continued drought, more and more community members became engaged in water conservation, and beyond that, true watershed stewardship. Motivation was high to harvest the abundant water that falls on our roofs every year–a measure that helps even out the peaks and valleys between wet and dry spells, and allows our own landscapes to mimic nature’s pattern of infiltration–a vital link in the hydrologic cycle that is typically broken by our roofs, lawns, and driveways.

(If you raised your eyebrows at my use of the word abundant, keep reading…)


What’s rainwater harvesting got to do with fire-resistant landscapes?

Natural vs Developed demonstration of water cycle and fire-resistant landscapes

Which one of these landscapes allows water to infiltrate into the ground; which one interrupts the natural hydrologic cycle?

As a rainwater harvesting professional, I’ve been focused on the importance of collecting rain on-site to mitigate the impacts of all the hardscape in our landscape.  Simply put, if the living, breathing “skin” of our earth (soil) is all covered up, it can’t perform the vital ecosystem service of infiltrating water. That water instead sheets over roadways, through storm drains, and is delivered to local waterways in overwhelming quantities as polluted runoff. The ground underneath, on the other hand, remains parched. And like an overdrawn bank account, water levels in our reservoirs and aquifers keep dropping.


How much water are we really talking about?

In short, the answer is a lot. Every single inch of rain that falls on a 1,000 square-foot roof translates to over 620 gallons of high-quality water, that if caught, can be stored and used later. Apply that to modern-day home of 2,500 square feet, and multiply by an average Santa Rosa winter with 32” of rain, to generate nearly 50,000 gallons of water per year. In a severe drought year (with only half of the average precipitation) we’re still just shy of 25,000 gallons from that same rooftop. Perhaps more water than you expected.

(Use our RAINWATER CALCULATOR to estimate the amount of water that’s available from your own roof)

Do you believe me now when I say that, when managed correctly, rainfall really is abundant?

If stored, used, and infiltrated on site, that water is a tremendous resource. It provides free irrigation water, and all of the ecosystem services that come with keeping plants and soils hydrated. It also helps to recharge the water table underfoot. The soil acts as a living, breathing sponge in a healthy garden. If sent away by the standard design of drain pipes and gutters, the same water contributes to our stormwater issue.

Is 25,000 gallons of water storage realistic? Probably not for most of us. But what if you could catch and store just some of that water? You succeed in two ways: (1) by giving yourself a free water-supply to use during dry months as an alternative to further depleting wells and reservoirs; (2) by taking a bite out of the stormwater problem, as–even during the most severe drought on record–stormwater impacts remain one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. These are two sides of the same coin.


To our readers all over the globe:

one of the most common misconceptions about rainwater harvesting is that it is only appropriate in certain climate zones. In fact, rainwater harvesting is a key technique both for conserving water, and for managing excessive stormwater; mitigating hardscape by helping the land to infiltrate water the way it would if your roof weren’t there… in any climate.


BlueBarrel Rainwater Catchment System Santa Rosa

These barrels wet the roof of this Santa Rosa home as the wildfire encroached upon the urban area.

Fire and Rain

But bring fire into the discussion and we highlight even more angles. Keeping plants and soils hydrated makes landscapes more resistant to fire. And beyond resistance, there’s downright emergency preparedness. I got emails from customers who used their rainwater to wet down the roof and garden as the wildfire approached. In other types of emergencies, rainwater makes a great backup drinking water source, provided that you keep some emergency water treatment supplies handy.

I have a series of 19 rain barrels collecting from my own 700-square-foot roof. At 55 gallons each, that’s a total of 1,000 gallons of storage that I draw down and recharge a handful of times each year. I feel like I’m making a dent in the stormwater problem while also keeping my garden hydrated with the highest quality irrigation water available

Consider rainwater harvesting when you think of things you might do to cultivate resilience at your own home. (This extends into your community, too; nature knows no boundaries.) And don’t be surprised if you find some peace of mind, too, knowing you’re more prepared should another emergency occur.

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