Homeowners in wildfire-prone areas know how important it is to examine every element of their home and property for its fire potential. While wildfires occur throughout the country, those that take place in the West are larger and burn more acreage, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Wildfire Statistics.
Firescaping is the term used for landscape design that focuses on reducing the potential vulnerability for a home and property. It involves choosing plants that are naturally fire-resistant, incorporating appropriate hardscape and bedding materials, and ensuring that there is a defensible space to help keep wildfires from spreading from the vegetation to your home.
While no trees or plants are fire-proof, there are some that are fire-resistant and can help keep fire from spreading to your home. The following are some specific recommendations from Cal Fire, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Office, Colorado State University Extension and University of California Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County as well as suggestions for landscaping techniques for further firebreak protection.
Plants and Shrubs
While evergreen shrubs are traditional foundation plantings, these are not appropriate for firescaping since they contain oils, resins, and waxes that make these plants burn with great intensity, according to Firescaping Landscape Design For Defensible Space. The same rule applies for ornamental grasses and berries because they also can be highly flammable.
Hedging roses, bush honeysuckles, currant, cotoneaster, sumac and shrub apples are among the shrubs that are also considered fire-resistant. As for plants, choose high-moisture plants with a low sap or resin content and grow close to the ground, recommends Cal Fire, such as rockrose, ice plant and aloe.
WHN TIP – Know the Plant: When selecting plants from a fire-resistant list, verify that they are appropriate for your area and not considered an invasive species. A good suggestion is to take your list to a local nursery or garden center and ask the experts for their advice.
Also, don’t use shrubs to screen propane tanks, firewood piles or other flammable materials, says Colorado State University Extension’s Fire-Resistant Landscaping, and plant them individually separated from other shrubs and away from tree within the defensible space.
Hardwood, maple, poplar and cherry trees are among the trees that are considered to be less flammable versus pine, fir and other conifers, notes Cal Fire. In general, deciduous trees (those that shed their leaves in the fall) are generally more fire-resistant due to a higher moisture content when in leaf, a lower fuel volume when dormant, and typically do not contain flammable oils, notes University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Office.
In addition to planting fire-resistant trees and plants, look for places where you can create fire-resistant zones using stone walls, patios, decks and roadways, says Cal Fire. Other firebreak options include water features such as pools, ponds or streams. When establishing flowerbeds, avoid long or large beds since that increases the fire risk. Instead, make several smaller beds, separated from each other by noncombustible materials like gravel walkways or retaining walls.
When selecting mulches for flowerbeds or as ground cover, stay away from shredded rubber, pine needles and shredded cedar bark since they have the highest hazardous combustion characteristics, says U of C Cooperative Extension. Also, while composted wood chips have low burn characteristics, they will smolder, which can be easily overlooked.
Your goal is to create a defensible space: the buffer between your home and the plantings or wildland area that surround it. Defensible space serves two purposes: it helps keep fire away from our home and enables firefighters to easily access the building from all angles and sides.
U of C Cooperative Extension recommends avoiding anything flammable—plants, mulches, woodpiles and furniture—within five feet of your home and other structures. Choose low groundcover such as mown grass, flowers, vegetables and mulch for Zone 1: five to 30 feet from your home, while Zone 2 (31 to 100 feet from your home) is for shrubs and trees. (Note: Check with your local fire department for the specific distance for your area.)
WHN Expert TIP – Calculate the Distance: Cal Fire’s Maintain Defensible Space has suggestions and illustrations, along with tips for calculating the vertical and horizontal spacing between shrubs and trees to help keep fire from moving from a shrub to a nearby tree.
Finally, always follow the Three Rs of of Defensible Space provided by the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County:
- Removal – Remove plants that are overcrowded or produce copious amounts of fine, dry fuels, and remove ladder fuels. Eliminate any dead trees or flammable shrubs.
- Reduction – Clean out fine dry fuels such as try twigs and leaves, especially near the ground. Remove branches near eaves or wood fences and prune low tree branches and deadwood. Mow tall grass, preferably before it dries.
- Replacement – Replant with less flammable plant material and replace wooden fencing and gates with wrought iron or similar non-flammable material. Install drip irrigation to keep plants green.
For More Information
- University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Living With Fire website
- S.A.F.E. LANDSCAPES: Southern California Guidebook Sustainable and Fire-Safe Landscapes In The Wildland Urban Interface
- University of California Cooperative Extension Fire In California
- Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Preparing homes for wildfire
- What to Do Before, During and After a Wildfire
- Wildfire Resources and Organizations
- How I Recovered After a Wildfire: Jacqueline Lloyd’s Story
- How I Survived a Wildfire: Jacqueline Lloyd’s Story
- Bob Worsley’s Wildfire Story
- 3 FAQs About Wildfires
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