We have five seasons instead of four in the western part of the US: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Fire season. I’m pretty good at rolling with earthquakes (pun intended), but fires scare the heck out of me. They can be particularly scary if you live in the mountains or foothills, next to wild lands.
If you live where undeveloped and developed land meets, you are in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) and are at high risk for wildfire. Much of the housing in Santa Clarita is in the WUI, as are neighborhoods in Simi, San Fernando, and San Gabriel valleys, and the Santa Monica Mountains. Ventura, Ojai and Santa Barbara are also surrounded by undeveloped land.
Is there anything you can do to fireproof your home and property? Unfortunately, no, but there are many steps you can take to make your property more fire resistant and to reduce damage from fires. This relatively new type of landscaping is called firescaping and focuses on slowing the spread of fire toward a structure by using fire-resistant materials and plants. My friend and colleague, Douglas Kent, recently published the second edition of his extremely well-researched (and useful) book Firescaping: Protecting Your Home with a Fire-Resistant Landscape. He talks about comprehensive steps at the home, neighborhood and community levels to help reduce fire damage to structures. I’ll discuss a few of his ideas below, but if this is a topic you are interested in, I highly recommend this book.
Taking action with these three steps can help to make your home and landscape fire-resistant:
- Maintain your landscape so it is unfriendly to fire.
- Design your landscape with natural fire breaks.
- Use fire-resistant plants.
Maintenance – Creating a Defensible Space
Maintaining your existing or new landscape is more important than any type of plants or landscaping you choose. Even the most fire-resistant landscape design will not be effective if it is not kept watered and green. Fire loves dead growth, so if you do not clear dead growth, prune and water regularly, you are laying out a buffet for a hungry fire. The following home tasks should be done on a regular basis:
- Perform annual brush clearing if you have undeveloped land on your property.
- Keep tree branches at least ten feet away from your roof.
- Remove dead leaves from rain gutters
- Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.
Design your Landscape with Fire Breaks Built In
I use basic principles of firescaping when creating a design for someone living in a WUI. If you want to design your own landscape, you can follow these basics as well. These include:
Keep defensible space (typically 30 feet around the house) clear of tall or more flammable plants.
This 30-foot buffer should be filled with ‘fire smart’ plants – low growing plants with no oils, waxes or resins on them. Again, you will need to keep these plants green by watering through the summer fire season so that they will be effective.
Create fuel breaks.
Use driveways, sidewalks, lawns, stone or brick walls and water features to reduce fuel load and create fuel breaks. However, extensive areas of turf grass may not be right for everyone. Some good alternatives include clover, ground covers, and grasses that are kept green during the fire season through irrigation. Rock mulches are good choices. Patios, masonry, or rock planters are excellent fuel breaks and increase wildfire safety. Be creative with boulders and dry streambeds.
Create islands of plants with space in between. Also, separate your plants so they don’t form “fuel ladders” – places where fire can jump from groundcover to shrubs to trees.
Take your specific site into account
The slopes in your neighborhood, wind patterns, and native vegetation types must be considered when landscaping for fire safety. Fire travels faster on a slope, for instance, so if you are on a ridge you will want to increase your defensible space over someone on a flat lot. A professional landscape designer with experience in firescaping can be of great help with this.
Use Fire-Resistant Plants
All plants and trees will burn eventually, but certain species carry so much water in their leaves and stems that they actually slow down a fire.
A comprehensive list of fire-resistant plants is beyond my expertise to create, but plants in this category have the following characteristics:
- Thick leaves that hold water. These includes succulents and iceplants.
- Whatever you choose, make sure the plants/trees are healthy and green.
- In general (but not always), plants with fragrant leaves such as sage or juniper are scented because of oils and resins, which are highly flammable. Plants without resins and oils are safer.
- Plants with low- and slow-growing habits typically create less woody growth or dead growth.
Some good perennials for Southern California gardens that are safe near the house include geraniums, agapanthus (Lily of the Nile), canna lilies, Shasta daisies, daylilies and phormium (New Zealand flax). More complete plant lists can be found in the Firescaping book and at the FireSafe Marin site.
Beware of Flammable Plants
But what about the most flammable plants—the ones you should consider removing or at least not planting? These plants are known for the amount of dead fuel that accumulates inside them, high oil (or high resin) content, or the low moisture content of their leaves and branches.
Characteristics of highly flammable plants include:
- Dry and dead leaves or twigs
- Dry, leathery leaves
- Abundant, dense foliage
- High oil or resin including gums or terpenes
- Shaggy, rough, or peeling bark
- Lots of dead leaves underneath the plant (litter)
- Needle-like or very fine leaves
- Foliage with low moisture
Most fire agencies recommend against these trees, at least in communities in the WUI:
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga)
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations on upping your fire-safe knowledge! Let me take this opportunity to remind you about tactic #1: Maintenance. This is BY FAR the most important thing you can do to protect your home against wildfire, or honestly, any fire. If you’d like to learn more about firescaping I’ve included a short list of resources below. Now get to work cleaning up your property!
Resources for further reading:
California Fire Safe Council: http://www.cafiresafecouncil.org
UC Homeowner’s Wildfire Mitigation Guide: http://ucanr.edu/sites/Wildfire/
National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Wildfire/Preparing-homes-for-wildfire
FireSafe Marin list of fire-resistant plants: https://www.firesafemarin.org/plants/fire-prone