CCA students and faculty journey over 230 miles north to meet with residents of the fire-devastated town Greenville.

How a town touched by fire looked to the next generation to inspire its future

One alum’s vision to help his hometown recover from the Dixie Fire blossomed into a multi-year partnership where CCA students offered inspiration to rebuild for resilience, longevity, and sustainability, and found their voice along the way.

The Dixie Fire, the second largest wildfire in California state history, burned 963,309 acres in a far northeast corner of California in 2021, completely destroying the town of Greenville and devastating communities in this rural area.

Most of Greenville’s 1,100+ residents instantly lost their town, their homes, and anything resembling day-to-day life in what was once a community surrounded by beautiful mountains and forests.

“You’re paralyzed when you experience something at this level,” says Sue Weber, a resident of Greenville who moved to the town some decades ago after taking a leave of absence from relief work she had done as a nun.

Many residents went into survival mode when the fire initially erupted and throughout its months-long conflagration, protecting their properties from the encroaching flames until it was no longer possible to do so.

A photo of the remains of a single burned-out building amid a backdrop of forest regrowth and burned trees.

Remnants of Greenville’s downtown. The town is located north of the Plumas National Forest in Northern California.

Architect, designer, and CCA alum Tyler Pew (MArch Architecture 2012) grew up in Greenville in a family that has lived in the community for four generations. He says, “When the fire happened I came up to help fight it where my family lived and left thinking things were a bit more stable. Then, on August 4th, Greenville was destroyed.”

Yet amid the devastation Pew and Weber immediately looked at how they could help their community recover. Pew knew from the start that rebuilding would be an enormous, multi-layered undertaking, which went beyond buildings, homes, and roads, expanding to regional economies, sustainability, education, and more.

Greenville is located in Plumas County, a region that had already seen a 5% population decline per year prior to the Dixie Fire, and is largely older, and with incomes below California’s state average. Its biggest economies are in logging, timber, and ranching. Pew asks, “How can we use this fire to rebuild relationships and the land?”

He looked to his alma mater the Architecture program at California College of the Arts (CCA), to see if the school could help envision recovery efforts in a way that would rebuild a more sustainable, resilient, and thriving town. He says, “I knew this would take systems-based thinking and design thinking from someplace that excels at that like CCA. How do you start to craft a recovery and rebuild? What does that look like? Who needs to be in the room?”

Architectural rendering of a four-way intersection with a wood-framed modernist structure in the center.

CCA Architecture students created projects that incorporated regional economies and communities, and imagined for long-term sustainability.

“We also have to address the question of why rebuild at the end of the day in an increasingly fire-prone area?” Pew says. “And the truth is we’re rebuilding because, yes, we want our community to thrive again, but the climate reality is here and we need to have case studies for the future. We can’t keep thinking the same way we always have.”

Architecture and design experts conceive a resilient future

Pew had initially imagined just one class that could start designing projects to move recovery efforts forward when he approached Janette Kim, associate professor of Architecture, and Peter Anderson, professor of Architecture. But what followed turned into a multi-year partnership between the community of Greenville and CCA, in 9 courses, over 50 student projects, stays in the town itself, and heartfelt conversations with its residents.

“And what I was blown away with was that CCA said, ‘Why don’t we make this more than just a class? We could make this an entire program,’” Pew says, noting that many of CCA’s faculty are deeply involved in practices that focus on climate resilience, climate change, and sea level rise. Faculty who also led courses included Mark Donohue, associate professor of Architecture, Lisa Findley, professor of Architecture; James Graham, assistant professor of Architecture; and Margaret Ikeda, associate professor of Architecture.

To imagine how Greenville could be resilient and sustainable in the future, students researched its past, its present connection to the natural environment, its economies and resources, and how all these layers would be brought together in a project or idea that would benefit the town.

One project by BArch Architecture students Luis Arturo Gomez-Escobedo and Vicky Sindac, called Knowledge Exchange Hubs, proposes a walking corridor along Wolf’s Creek, which runs through Greenville. It creates a space for different community members to share their skills, expertise, and specialties, from fishing to Indigenous ecological practices.

Architectural rendering of a highlighted creek with various buildings sites and paths sketched along the way.

The project Knowledge Exchange Hubs combines the community’s desire for a walking path along Wolf’s Creek with the need to reimagine local economies as well as empowering land and water stewardship by the Indigenous Maidu community.

Janette Kim says the idea originated through meetings students participated in at the Dixie Fire Collaborative, the Greenville nonprofit at the heart of many grassroots-initiated recovery efforts.

“Vicky and Arturo were just really good at listening to the community and understanding the connections,” says Kim, adding, “And it had connected to research they had conducted on Indigenous land practices.”

Sindac says she and Luis Arturo Gomez-Escobedo created the project to empower the Maidu community, the Indigenous people of the region, to be at the center of the design and decision-making process. She says, “We called this proposed structure ‘Maidu Governance,’ where the Maidu community has the power to decide what best benefits the land and water, which are sacred to them, their practices, and their ancestors.”

Kim taught a studio that helped underpin much of the theoretical and historical work needed to conceptualize many of the projects by understanding the larger economic systems that would play a part in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. Students studied the region's historical economies like lumber and timber, ranching, and fire management.

Architectural rendering detailing an outdoor garden with patios where people are mingling.

Luis Arturo Gomez-Escobedo and Vicky Sindac imagine a community garden along Wolf’s Creek in their project Knowledge Exchange Hubs.

“The goal was to understand how these industries have shaped the area, what kinds of jobs are available and how the culture is related to ranching histories and timber," says Kim, “And then we use this framework of transforming extractive industries into regenerative ones.”

The biggest landowner in California is a logging company. Kim says that many local timber companies are practicing much more sustainable methods of logging which economically supports the local communities. Likewise, local ranchers are practicing thoughtful grass-fed, relatively sustainable ranching which contrasts from large-scale Central Valley corporate practices.

“It’s tricky. You can’t go back to the way the economy was before but you also want to respect this legacy and move forward,” Kim says.

A diagram of Greenville with its signature main thoroughfare alongside Wolf’s Creek.

The project Indian Valley Trading Post by Bennett Grisley (BArch Architecture) and Jesús Guillermo Macías Franco (BArch Architecture) creates a flexible, cooperatively owned trading post in Greenville that combines production, storage, and transportation under one roof.

On the technological side, students created projects to innovate how we construct buildings and with which materials in order to weather a future fire or climate disaster, and in a way that supports the local economy.

In Peter Anderson’s studio course, they explored how they could reuse or remake existing materials. One team decided to transform pine cones and needles, which are abundant but flammable and need to be cleared regularly, into a resource for building materials.

“Instead of just sending someone out there to clean the forest floor so we don't have fires, they are harvesting these materials and turning them into products,” says Anderson.

What would be the best material to re-build in a fire-prone area?

Anderson, an expert in material technology, says we should build using wood.

“We have a town that burned down catastrophically. Why would we rebuild it with wood?” Anderson asks. “There is a lot of new technology such as mass timber that is actually very fire resistant because of how it’s made. This new way of using wood makes it thicker and when you expose it to fire, even a severe one, the outer layover will char and provide a protective layer for the inner surface.”

In addition to it being more sustainable than concrete or steel, it’s also more resilient, Anderson explains. “The idea is that the building should survive the fire to make it reusable. In big fire situations, steel melts, and concrete can crack. It might survive a fire, but then has to be torn down afterwards.”

“It’s also much better for the environment than concrete or steel,” he adds. “We have to reconceive how we think about the materials we build with in fire-prone areas. It means rebuilding in a different way and with a different design approach.”

“We realized that many from our community speak of social justice, while people in Greenville talk about independence and personal agency. And, while I recognize those are not the same thing, we have found common ground through questions of local ownership, individual empowerment, and community strength.”

— Janette Kim

Associate Professor of Architecture

Coming to Greenville

Each semester CCA students made the 230 mile trip northeast from San Francisco to Greenville for an extended weekend to listen to the local community, participate in forums, and present their projects. These extended weekends offered some of the most poignant memories and heartwarming moments for students, faculty, and Greenville residents.

“Beautiful is an understatement,” says Vicky Sindac. “We fell in love with Greenville during our first visit and met many people who weren’t originally from the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself settling down in the area.”

A photo of Greenville community members seated at a table while CCA students present a project.

Each semester, students participated in stays with the Greenville community to talk with residents and workshop projects.

“There were just these magical moments where you see how the partnership is about personal relationships,” says Janette Kim. “We realized that many from our community speak of social justice, while people in Greenville talk about independence and personal agency. And, while I recognize those are not the same thing, we have found common ground through questions of local ownership, individual empowerment, and community strength.”

Observing the students come to her community, Sue Weber saw “how powerfully empathetic they were.” She adds, “We don’t think about when personal past trauma meets the current trauma, how it allows old wounds to reopen again. And I saw how students handled these moments with incredible empathy.”

BArch Architecture student Bennett Grisley was among the many students who visited the town and had one-on-one conversations with Greenville residents during presentations at street fairs and local gatherings. “It’s really vulnerable to hold space with a community experiencing this kind of disaster, a town being destroyed. It gave our work and why we were there real life,” says Grisley.

Many students, like Grisley, say they looked to alum Tyler Pew as a role model for how to make work amid vulnerable moments and through ideological and visionary differences for how the town could be rebuilt.

“Any feedback is good feedback,” Grisley says, quoting Pew. “You really learn to be a fantastic listener; you hear criticism and resistance, but you have to stick through these conversations. It opened my eyes to look at this from a different perspective, a humanistic one, and a way of reconciling differences in perspectives.”

A group portrait of over a dozen people affiliated with CCA Architecture posing with a forest in the background.

CCA Architecture faculty and students join alumni Tyler Pew (at right) to help create ideas and projects to rebuild Greenville.

The partnership led to paid summer internships with Pew’s design firm, LMNOP, where many students from CCA carried forward projects they made for school. Alum Suvin Choi (BArch Architecture 2023) recently landed a full-time position as a designer with the firm.

“Tyler [Pew] pushed me to build my skills,” says Choi. “He is good at seeing our strengths. And I’ve learned so much from him about managing projects, leadership, and good communication.”

Janette Kim says, “There are certain ways the students have learned to work with people who are very different from themselves and learned how to do it with confidence and their own presence to share what they know, too.”

Letting the next generation lead

Today’s youth will be—and are—the generation reckoning with the effects of climate change more so than any other generation. They are the first to understand that how things once worked—from energy and cities to transportation and organizations—no longer serves the climate reality we now live in.

CCA faculty and Greenville community members are inspired by how these students reimagined whole systems, building types, and materials for a world that they will ultimately shape.

Two students stand at a podium together.

In October, CCA held the symposium “After the Wildfire: Rebuilding, Repairing, and Regenerating Greenville” where students presented their projects and participated in a roundtable discussion.

Sue Weber, who has chaired the Dixie Fire Collaborative, has seen first hand how difficult it can be to work toward recovery with outdated ways of doing things in hierarchies and bureaucracies. She says, “This ecosystem has to be connected to work well; the old ways are siloed and disconnected. And you’re simultaneously trying to change the system. How is that system going to work for the younger generation?”

Students today see a different world is possible in how we think about property ownership and generational wealth. In Greenville, students have tried to solve for how the town ensures a younger population can stay and thrive in the community.

What if you could own your home or flat simply by renting it year over year? That’s Francisco Calderon’s (BArch Architecture) project. “So it’s kind of like a rent to own scheme where you might start paying $1,000 a month or so, and then over time you start to own a portion of it. You could build equity,” says Janette Kim.

What if wealth passed from generation to generation in a way that benefited the whole community? Alexandra Huerta’s (BArch Architecture) project imagines a community land trust, Kim says. “And in her project, wealth passes from one generation to the next, but doesn’t limit it to that family. So if you’re a single retiree who doesn’t have kids, but you want to support your community, you can be a part of this collective that helps the next generation.”

These students are ready to ask deep questions, and they’re eager to find daring solutions.

For her part, Sue Weber sees how passionate, curious young people can infuse life and hope in an unbelievably difficult situation.

She says, “Having these young energetic, unbelievably gracious and powerful people come to our community—ones who our community has fallen in love with—we trust them as we trust Tyler. They were able to help get us out of our paralysis, while we rebuilt our community.”

— Antonio Campos
December 7, 2023