Can landscaping protect my home from wildfire?

Can landscaping protect my home from wildfire?

02 October 2010

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USA —  Well-designed landscapes do more than add value to your property. They can defend your house, even your life, if wildfires threaten.

This is the experience of Greg Rubin, founder and owner of California’s Own Native Plant Design in Escondido. He specializes in creating fire-resistant landscapes in Escondido, Fallbrook and other fire-prone regions of Southern California.

However, he’s quick to point out that no landscape is guaranteed to withstand severe fires.

“You can control your landscape, but if your house has inherent architectural problems, like exposed eaves, sits on a ridgeline, or (has) open areas under decks where embers can ignite, then fire can occur,” he said.

Your property can also be affected by neighbors’ landscapes. Rubin cites the experience of one of his clients during the 2007 wildfires. Her fire-resistant property didn’t ignite. But flaming palm fronds from around the neighborhood became incendiary devices igniting cars and structures where they landed.

Still, planning and plant selection can make a difference in whether your house can survive a fire.

Experts, including those at the U.S. Fire Administration, advocate creating defensible space. Think of your landscape as consisting of zones, the area closest to the house being the most critical, and a second zone being farther out, where “vegetation modification” can help increase your landscape’s resistance to fire.

You might think a simple landscape fireproofing solution would be to remove all plants so there’s nothing to burn. But, Rubin pointed out, this can create “a perfect pathway for fireballs.” Instead of bare earth, it’s better to grow fire resistant-plants and to manage the area, he said.

Make sure all dead plants, limbs and the like are removed. Weed regularly. By the time late summer arrives, weeds die and can act like tinder if fire erupts. Also, remove dead leaf litter. Serious damage during the fires of 2007 came from dried avocado leaves that ignited and spread fire rapidly.

Landscape maintenance

Even though advocates of native plants avoid watering, Rubin disagrees. He recommends 30 minutes of overhead irrigation two or three times monthly during summer. “This doesn’t compromise native ecology,” Rubin said. “And this little bit of hydration has an amazing effect because the plants can become very fire-resistant.”

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