Fire-Safe Landscaping

By Kim Haworth

The recent fires in Southern California remind us that no matter how a fire starts, weather conditions and landscape features can fuel the flames or slow the spread. With grasses and brush tinder dry, high winds, and thousands of dead and dying trees due to sudden oak death and beetle infestation of pines, the conditions were ripe for disaster.

Fire is nature's way of pruning. It clears dead and diseased trees and shrubs from grasslands and forests. It's also nature's way of rejuvenating. Several species of native plant seeds won't even germinate unless the hard seed casing is cracked open by heat.

Unfortunately, civilization has encroached on nature's plan. We are building further and further into wilderness areas. Homes are tucked into hillside forests and perched atop grassy knolls to take advantage of spectacular views. During fire season, the landscapes around our homes can increase the danger. But there are several measures you can take to reduce the immediate risk of fire damage around your own home.

Remove the Fuel

Fire needs fuel to burn. By removing the fuel, you decrease the danger of fire.

* Never stack firewood next to the house.

* Cut native grasses to 4 inches tall after they have turned brown.

* Rake up fallen leaves and remove plant debris.

* Keep plants near the house watered.

* Remove shrubs from under wooden decks.

* Remove dead branches from shrubs and trees.

* Cover brushy areas near your home with a 3-inch layer of mulch.

Interrupt Fire Pathways

Fire moves along paths made up of shrubs, trees, and grasses. By creating a clear area, or a void, between plantings, you can help stop fire in its tracks. Fire moves vertically too, so you also will need to separate trees from shrubs. If they are growing together as a wall of foliage, the danger of fire moving vertically is increased. Don't forget that limbs overhanging the roof are perhaps the easiest route for flames to move onto the roof. And if the roof is made of shake shingles, it's a welcome mat for fire.

Use Fire-Resistant Plants

Some plants are naturally more susceptible to fire than others. In the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, eucalyptus trees were blamed for the inferno. Other plants especially susceptible to fire are arbutus, arctostaphylos, escalonia, lavandula, and mahonia.

On the opposite side of the coin, some plants are naturally fire resistant. Succulents are an excellent choice for planting near buildings because their foliage contains a lot of water. Other good choices include agapanthus, callistemon, nandina, oleander, pittosporum, and plumbago. If you live in an area prone to fire, consider landscaping the area immediately surrounding your home with either lawn or fire-resistant plants, or using concrete decking inset with small planting beds or decorated with container plants.

Landscaping After Fire

If the worst does happen and there is a fire on your property, the first thing you should do is to prune away the charred branches. Don't remove the entire plants immediately; they may begin to grow again the following spring. Also, their roots will help prevent mudslides and erosion on hillsides until the area is replanted. Seed the area with rye grass, which will root quickly once the winter rains begin and help hold the soil in place. Plant fast-growing ground covers, such as aptenia, bergenia, euonymus, grevillea, ophiopogon, and pachysandra.

For more information on fire-safe landscaping, visit these Web sites:

U.S. Fire Administration

The Fire Safe Council

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