Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about water-wise landscaping, yet never did it occur to me to investigate fire-wise landscaping. The unfortunate events of late have now brought these concerns to the forefront of my mind.
I have spoken with many people who are eager to replant their yards and gardens, to begin the process of healing their land. Of course, the sight of new green growth among the ashes heals more than just the land.
I began wondering about the best ways to approach replanting and maintaining the land. My first thought was that landscaping for fire prevention was going to be a difficult and complex endeavor, one very different from those I have done in the past.
Upon further research, however, I found that fire-wise landscaping uses many of the same concepts and tactics as does drought-tolerant landscaping. Despite the old adage about fire and water, it is actually possible to combine these two methods.
Not everyone needs to employ fire-wise landscaping. Those who most benefit are people who live on the edge of urban areas. The UWI, or Urban Wildlife Interface, is the place where forest land meets urban neighborhoods. Homes in this area should have 100 feet of defensible space.
The 30 feet closest to the home is the Home Defense Zone, surrounded by a 40-foot ring of Reduced Fuel Zone. While this may conjure images of a wide swath of barren land around your home, such drastic changes are not necessary. Using the right approach can greatly reduce the risk to your home. As with drought-tolerant landscaping, you need to consider plant selection and placement, irrigation, hardscape and maintenance.
Within your Home Defense Zone, plant selection is critical. Some plants are more fire resistant (or fire prone) than others. The best are those with succulent leaves and spacious branching habits; such plants are often described as “leggy.” If they encounter flame, they are less likely to ignite due to the higher water content in their leaves. If they do ignite, the open branching will prevent them from burning as hot as more tightly structured, resinous plants such as juniper, spruce and pine.
When ignited, a one-foot-tall juniper bush can emit flames as high as ten feet. Some recommended plants include yarrow, creeping rosemary, oleander and roses. Also consider succulents and natives, as many meet the qualifications for both.
Keep the plants near your home shorter than two feet tall and spaced four feet part. Recommended plant spacing increases on a slope; check with your local fire department for advice. Also, keep plants from touching the house and keep trees from hanging over the roof.
Hardscape reduces water use, enhances aesthetic appeal and creates fire breaks. Pathways, decorative walls and stone mulches make it more difficult for fire to move through an area. Wood mulches help retain water, feed the soil, and look attractive, but they are a potential pathway for fire.
Increasing irrigation may seem like a good fire-prevention strategy, but it can actually have the opposite effect. Watering with a “shotgun” approach encourages weeds, another avenue for flames.
Think of the land surrounding your home in terms of fuel: what will burn and how will it burn? The last thing you want is to increase the fuel sources. Installing drip irrigation takes time and money, but the system will pay off tenfold. With drip irrigation, you can target individual plants and accommodate their specific water needs, reducing water waste and weed growth. The constant, slow flow of water will also keep them at optimum hydration, limiting their flammability.
In the Reduced Fuel Zone, space large trees so that there is at least 10 feet between their longest limbs. Prune shrubs beneath trees to increase the vertical distance between them. You may need to remove some plants. Mow annual grasses to four inches or less during fire season. Keep woodpiles free of plant growth and at a distance from the home.
Clean up any fallen tree and plant litter, especially any against the home, on the roof or in the gutters. Prune trees and shrubs regularly to thin their branch density and keep branches well above ground. Most California fires are surface fires, burning low to the ground. The front line of the fire, where the most burning occurs, usually passes an area in under 10 minutes. With proper land management, irrigation and maintenance, your home may be spared the next time.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will lead a free workshop on “Herb Bundles from Your Garden” on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 7-8 p.m., at the Napa County Library. Learn about herbs in your garden that you might use to make an herb bundle for cooking, known as a bouquet garni. Master Gardeners will talk about which plants are used for seasoning different kinds of food and how to bundle them. Attendees will make their own bouquet garni to take home. No reservation required.