Efforts to reduce wildfire risks posed by landscaping are taking root

Efforts to reduce wildfire risks posed by landscaping are taking root

26 October 2008

published by www.signonsandiego.com

USA — A year after wildfires forced more than a half-million county residents to evacuate their homes along the urban fringe, firefighters and conservationists are encouraged by efforts to make landscaping fire resistant.

Many homeowners are thinning shrubs and pruning trees that otherwise might become fuel for flames where housing meets the wildlands. In urban settings, civic groups and public safety organizations are encouraging neighbors to work cooperatively to clear excess brush from canyons and open space.

“I see communities doing a bit better,” said Faith Berry, coordinator for the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County, a nonprofit fire-education group. “People are willing to help each other. I see a lot of neighbors helping neighbors. If their house burns down, it make yours more liable to burn down, too.”

Marty Eberhardt, executive director of the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, offers classes on fuel modification, the proper placement of plants and shrubs. She thinks area residents are beginning to accept the fact that wildfires are likely to continue to occur. That means homeowners need to take a more active role in protecting their properties.

“I am optimistic that people are getting it,” Everhardt said.

One of the agencies that has taken an aggressive approach to the problem is the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District. The district is home to five “shelter-in-place” communities that came through the 2007 Witch Creek Fire without losing a single home.

Shelter in place is a wildfire protection plan with buildings and landscaping that enable homeowners to remain sheltered in their houses if they can’t evacuate. Requirements include indoor fire sprinklers, noncombustible roofs, and broad roadways to accommodate fire equipment.

“If you have a house built with ignition-resistant construction and landscaping, there is a high probability that you will survive a wildland fire,” said Mike Scott, the district’s urban forester.

The district requires residents to have 100 feet of defensible space around homes. They must plant fire-resistant vegetation within the first 50 feet of the structure. The next 50 feet of growth must be thinned out 50 percent. Dry and dead material must be removed. Weeds and grasses must be cut below 6 inches in height. Native vegetation and tree branches must be trimmed back at least 10 feet from rooftops, chimneys, and outdoor barbecues. Other agencies have similar requirements, but they vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

“There is a county code and a state code,” Berry said. “The city of San Diego has its own brush-management code as well, so you need to know what area you are living in to determine what you need to do.”

The city of San Diego is in the process of enlarging its brush-management inspection program, said

Eddie Villavicencio, deputy fire marshal.

“We are going from two inspectors to nine,” he said. “We need the staffing to meet the demand. The intent is to reduce the fire threat throughout the city.”

Although homes in urban areas are too closely packed to allow for 100 feet of defensible green space, owners can utilize the same principles by working with their neighbors. Naturalist Richard Halsey, the author of the book “Fire, Chaparral and Survival in Southern California,” appreciates the willingness of many homeowners to trim back brush. However, he thinks some are going too far. Sometimes they eliminate trees that could prevent heat and flying embers from reaching their dwellings during wildfires.

“Most well-manicured, well-maintained shrubs and trees, when they’re properly spaced, are not going to carry fire,” said Halsey, who heads the California Chaparral Institute. “When you are stripping your landscape, you are creating a bowling alley that is a straight shot to your structure.”

You need the correct combination of open space and vegetation to give your home the best chance of surviving a wildfire, explained landscaper Greg Rubin. If the land is denuded, you can create a fast-moving, uninterrupted stream of heated air and embers leading directly to your home.

Rubin’s company, California’s Own Native Landscape Design, has created landscaping for about 150 homes within the county. He said none of the homes have been lost to wildfire. Gradually, people are coming to recognize that removing too much vegetation is dangerous, he said.

“There is a lot of dialogue going on out there,” he said. “We are circling around, getting some consensus, but we are not there yet.”

In an effort to protect their investments, homeowner insurance companies sometimes require clients to remove too much vegetation, he added.

Last year, the county of San Diego adopted an ordinance that required new county government buildings to use drought-tolerant landscaping, said East County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. She holds that more can be done.

Jacob recently urged her colleagues to direct the county’s chief administrative officer to investigate options that strengthen county land-use regulations so all new developments within unincorporated areas use fire-and drought-resistant landscaping. Her motion passed unanimously, and a report is due back within three months.

Sherman Harmer, president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, worries that government will create new costs for home builders as it moves to protect houses from wildfire. He noted that the industry is struggling to survive the current economic downturn.

The concept of fire-resistant landscaping is good, “but we have to be part of the solution,” Harmer said. “If they make it too expensive, we simply aren’t going to build.”

Rather than pass new regulations, some people think the best way to help homeowners is to convince them to be self-reliant. In Australia, trained, able-bodied people often remain behind to fight flames when wildfires strike neighborhoods. Ken Miller, a fire services coordinator for the county Department of Planning and Land Use, said having residents do more to make their homes defensible is essential, particularly when there are chances of multiple fires.

“Basically, there aren’t enough fire engines to go to every house in the county,” he said.

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