Fire Safe Landscaping
Urban sprawl into wild fringes of communities is increasing the loss of houses to fire. Living in California means learning to live with fire. That's because our scenic vistas are fire-dependent. Fire cracks seed casings, allowing our native plants to thrive. And it clears out dead brush that can choke living plants and cut off food for wildlife. But firestorms are getting bigger...and they aren't a natural phenomena.
Firestorms are driven by loss of animals that munch on plants and keep them trimmed and tamed. Firestorms are driven by invasive plant species that grow wildly and create thick layers of organic materials that dry out in our hot, dry Santa Ana winds. And Firestorms are driven by urban sprawl that hinders the forest management organizations from allowing natural small fires to do their work -- instead, the vegetation builds for decades and turns natural fire into firestorms.
The single most important feature that you can provide a single home to help that home stand alone against fire and give firefighters a base to battle the flames is A FIRE SAFE LANDSCAPE.
What is a Fire Safe Landscape?A fire safe landscape isn't necessarily the same thing as a well-manicured yard. A fire safe landscape uses fire resistant plants that are strategically planted to resist the spread of fire to your home.
The Fire Safe Council provides a FOUR-STEP approach to firescaping your home and property.
Defensible SpaceDefensible space is the base around your home that will give firefighters a fighting chance against fire. It means clearing all dry grass, brush and dead leaves at least 30 feet from your home, and at least 150 feet if you're on a hill.
Defensible space and a fire safe landscape don't mean a ring of bare dirt around your home. When establishing your landscape, keep trees furthest from your house, shrubs can be closer, and bedding plants and lawns are nearest the house.
PlanningAssess your fire risk. Is your home on a hill? Are you near highly flammable native vegetation or drought-damaged ornamental plants? If your answer is yes, your fire risk is greater than average.
Contact your local fire department for fire hazard ratings in your neighborhood.
Spacing of Plants for Fire ReductionEliminate the "fire ladder." Fire needs fuel to burn. You can sap its strength by robbing it of the continuous sequence of vegetation that can carry flames from your landscape to your house.
Group plants of similar height and water requirements to create a "landscape mosaic" that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently.
Space trees at least 10 feet apart, and keep branches trimmed at least 10 feet from your roof. For trees taller than 18 feet, prune lower branches within six feet of the ground.
Install fire resistant, drought-tolerant plants that have a high moisture content. Use plants that do not accumulate dead leaves or twigs.
Use masonry or stone walls to separate plant groups and add variety to your landscape.
WateringChoose the right irrigation system. While all plants will eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Your plant selection and water availability will determine the right system for you.
Consider drip irrigation for watering most of your landscape. It's effective and conserves water because it targets where the water goes and how much gets there.
Use sprinklers for lawns or turf landscaping. Drip irrigation does not work well on lawns. Sprinklers on timers ensure your lawn is getting the right amount of water to keep it healthy and fire resistant.
MaintenanceKeep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis, remove dead branches, leaves and pine needles from your yard. These can serve as added fuel to a fire.
Prune and thin shrubs, trees and other plants to minimize the fuel load.
Be diligent about cleaning up, especially during fire season. Remove dead leaves from under the plants as well. Recycle/compost plant these materials. Participate in your community's green waste recycling program. You can also compost plant litter and create a money-saving alternative to store-bought soil and mulch.
Find out more about Fire Safe!The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), a department of the Resources Agency of California, provides leadership and services to protect and encourage sound land management of the forest, brush and grass-covered lands in California.
Fire Safe Landscaping is part of a series of fire safety informational materials. Contact your nearest CDF fire station or one of the administrative offices below for "Fire Safe Inside and Out," a homeowners' guide to fire safety inside the home and out.
Firesafe Plant Nursery InformationLANDSCAPING YOUR HOME IN A FIRE AREA provides in-depth suggestions for fire proofing your landscaping and plants. Here are a few excerpted tips:
Start with the idea that everything or almost everything within the first 30' should be fire proof. That is, brick, lawn, deck with no underhang (or on the ground), concrete or gravel, combined with landscaping that is flat and watered.
The next area, 30-100' (larger in high wind areas or steep slopes), should be regularly watered. To make a landscaping cheaper, more fire resistant, and more attractive it is desirable to put walkways throughout this area of the plantings.
The third area is the 100'+ area and it needs to be cleaned up. Thin the brush and trees so that there is a 10' space between all plants 5' and over.
Plants need to have moisture in them when the firestorm comes. Watering dry plants as the fire approaches does not work.
Weedy grasses, mustard. Anise, broom and most other weeds can create a big problem.
Thinning out the flammable bushes and removing the dead grass will make you more fire safe.
Good mulch is an important component of California's gardens/landscapes and ecology. The moisture that mulch retains helps keep the plant material hydrated and a little less flammable. Mulch (shredded redwood bark or shredded cedar bark) does burn, and creeps along with a smoldering fire that can be kicked or raked out.
Post Fire EcologyThe moonscape sites after fires will usually revegetate in a few years if we do not interfere.
Erosion is always an immediate concern after a wildfire. Common practices such as immediate seeding isn't always the best response. instead, protect the native vegetation, it is what is holding your hillside together.
During the first major rain native (or wild) sites have high erosion, and after the third or fourth rain erosion ceases. On seeded sites the erosion is slightly less the first few rains (the "grass" only comes up in areas of richer, deeper soil of fairly flat aspect and then only after the second or third rain), but because of fire frequency, crippling of the underground ecosystem, low biodiversity, and the dominant presence of shallow-rooted, alien species not part of the plant community, erosion is much, much greater long term.
Fire is a natural occurrence in California. It will happen every 100-250 years in most sites. Plan for it.
Las Pilitas is a native plant nursery whose staff has considerable experience with restoring fire-swept landscapes. They provide a list of fire-resistant plants.
This is primarily for rural residential areas, at the worst with a poor well, thirty minutes from the nearest fire engine and are gone a lot. Landscape designers who are planning an urban interface should find this LIST OF PLANTS useful also.
"This experiment really points out that weed control and garden hygiene are as important, or more important, than plant choice or irrigation practices," concludes the Las Pilitas nursery experts.
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