Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2000
Regional Report

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Trees and shrubs planted close to buildings is an open invitation for fire to jump from your gardens onto your house.


It's fire season. Winter rains aren't due for another 4 to 6 weeks, the temperatures are high, and grasses and brush are tinder dry. This is the price we pay for living in such a wonderful climate.

Utilitarian Fires

Fire is nature's way of pruning. It clears dead or diseased trees and shrubs from grasslands and forests. Dead foliage is highly susceptible to fast-burning grass fires, and a few species of native plant seeds won't even germinate unless the hard seed casing is cracked open by a raging fire.

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. This is asking for trouble in fire season.

My Mother's Fireproof Home

My mother lived in rural Napa in a beautiful home surrounded by native oaks and manzanita. The setting was on the west side of the Napa valley, in a canyon that hadn't had a natural burn for over 60 years. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The first thing she did after moving in was to prune the branches of the oak trees that overhung the roof. Overhanging branches are a stairway for fire. Next, she spent a small fortune to remove the existing split-shake shingles and replace them with a steel roof. Burning embers carried on high winds are a major contributor to the destruction of buildings. Finally, she plumbed the swimming pool as a source of water to fight a fire. She was nevertheless so fearful of the inevitable disaster that she sold the home and moved to a state that has summer rain and little danger of wildfire.

Fire Prevention Measures

You don't have to move to prevent fire damage to your home. Fire needs fuel to burn - by removing the fuel, you decrease the danger. Below are several measures you can take to reduce the risk of fire:

* Don't stack firewood next to the house.

* Cut native grasses to less than 4 inches tall after they've turned brown.

* Rake up fallen leaves and remove plant debris.

* Keep plants near the house watered.

* Remove shrubs and weeds growing under wooden decks.

* Prune dead branches from shrubs and trees.

Stopping Fire Paths

Another key to a fire-safe landscape is to interrupt the path of a fire. Fire moves from one plant to another along paths made of shrubs, trees, and grasses. By creating a clear area between plantings, you can actually stop fire in its tracks. Don't forget that fire moves vertically too, so you also need to create space between your trees and shrubs. If they're growing together as a wall of foliage, the danger of fire moving vertically is increased. If the shrubs are separated from the tree canopy, the fire has no way to climb.

Fireproof 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. On the opposite side of the coin, however, some plants are naturally fire resistant. Planting juicy, low-growing succulents and perennials such as agapanthus near your home decreases the chance of fire. If you live in an area prone to fire, the landscaped area immediately surrounding your home should ideally be lawn, concrete decking, or fire resistant plants.

After the Burn

If the worst does happen and there is a fire on your property, the first thing you should do afterward is prune away the charred branches. Don't remove the plants immediately, as they may begin to grow again the following spring. Also, roots remaining in the soil will help prevent mudslides and erosion on hillsides until the area is replanted. It might be a good idea to seed the area with rye grass, which will root quickly once the winter rains begin and help hold the soil in place.

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