Fire-safe landscaping

Fire-safe landscaping

27 September 2008

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California, USA — There’s no doubt that after the Great Fires of ’08, no Californian living in a rural area will ever look at their surroundings in quite the same way again.

Are there beautiful trees around your home? Ready tinder for wildfires. Gorgeous thick bushes? Fields of golden grass? Ditto and ditto.

But there are steps that homeowners can take to make their yards fire-safe, and some landscaping design features that will make it harder for fires to travel to your doorstep.

Call it “firescaping.”

One man who’s spreading the gospel of fire-resistant landscape design is Dave Egbert of Big Sur. Egbert, a certified nurseryman whose syndicated television show, “The Coastal Gardener,” is seen across the country, saw the devastation of wildfires firsthand this summer.

“Suddenly, you realize that your garden is a big pile of fuel waiting to burn,” said Egbert, also a Big Sur volunteer firefighter. He joined in the battle against the Big Sur blazes and also saw flames come within a mile of his home.

Now he’s helping others avoid catastrophe, both on his TV show, and by talking to garden groups on how to create defensible space.

“The biggest key would be to reduce the amount of burnable material near the house,” said Egbert. “That really helps a lot in protecting your home.”

The new California requirement for defensible space is a circle of protection 100 feet from the house. This 100-foot radius is then divided into two zones, one inner ring and one outer.

“Thirty feet from the house is the lean, clean and green zone,” said Egbert. “There should be no excess clutter, wood piles or plants. The firefighter shouldn’t have to fight his way to your door.

“This should also be a well-watered space. Most of your irrigation should be done closest to the house.”

The outlying 70-foot ring is a fire-safe transition zone, with dry brush and grass removed, and no shrubs making lines toward the house that a fire could follow.

Homeowners have to attack on two fronts: landscape design and maintenenance.

Hardscape is the word to think about in terms of landscape design. Patios made of stone or concrete, stone or stucco walls, and wide paths made of pavers or gravel can act as firebreaks, said Egbert.

“If it’s a choice between a concrete wall and a wooden fence, choose the concrete wall,” said Egbert. “The concrete wall will cost more initially, but it will also last longer. You can literally stop a fire with a concrete wall.”

Avoiding anything flammable around the house also means that wooden structures, such as decks, are ill advised.

In addition, placement of plants is important.

Thick, woody shrubs that bump up against the house, or are clustered underneath trees, are sources of fuel for wildfires.

Egbert said that these planting situations create “fuel ladders,” which allow the blaze to climb up into a structure, or to the crown of the tree, giving a fire much more to burn.

Homeowners should avoid planting large clumps of plants or long hedges on their property, either of which can simply lead a fire straight to the house. Open space is preferable.

Egbert said he realizes there are often privacy issues that cause homeowners to plant big hedges or rows of trees, and he urges having a good, long look at the lay of the land before doing so.

“It may be that one tree will work instead of a row,” he said.

There are no truly fire-safe plants, but there are some that are more fire-resistant than others. Plants that are green and soft, rather than hard and woody, are better choices.

This doesn’t mean you’re stuck with succulents, either. Egbert’s own garden in Big Sur is overrflowing with colorful perennials like Mexican sage, dahlias, calendula and California poppy, all of which are drought-resistant, yet stay green in the summer and don’t develop a lot of woody growth.

Another alternative is the “edible landscape,” which in addition to being non-flammable, serves a useful purpose. Vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and vines such as grapes are gaining new popularity with thrifty gardeners.

“It’s a yard that’s fire-resistant and productive,” said Egbert. “There’s not a lot of woody volume to vegetables.”

But the most important thing for homeowners is simply to keep their plants well pruned and watered, especially those closest to the house. Clearing twigs and leaves out of gutters and off roofs is also important.

For instance, trees should be pruned away from structures and not be allowed to overhang. Lower limbs should also be cut back so that the canopy is higher, and so less likely to catch fire and spread a blaze.

Pruning dead limbs from shrubbery is also a must — again, reducing dry fuel — and taking out large or overgrown bushes may be necessary. Dead growth should be regularly disposed of.

Woodpiles are another problematic area, and should be kept at least 30 feet away from the house.

It’s all about finding a happy medium, said Egbert, whose pruning tips can be seen at the Web site of the Monterey Fire Safe Council, More gardening information can be discovered at his Web site,

“You’re doing a balancing act as a homeowner,” said Egbert. “There are issues of privacy and aesthetics. You have to find the right balance for your yard.”

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