When most homeowners think about landscaping, they don’t consider fire prevention as a part of their design theory. But many areas of the country do have a fire season, with the Southwest most recently feeling the destructive power of searing flames. And while “firescaping” can’t stop an oncoming fire in its tracks, including it in an overall landscape design can help reduce the extent of property damage in the event of a wildfire.
Plants with a naturally high water content, like cacti and succulents, are ideal around the foundation of homes in fire-prone areas.
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Keep your gutters clear of any plant debris to reduce your home’s flammability.
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
The first thing to consider when firescaping is the types of plants you can use. While it may seem that all vegetation would increase fire vulnerability, some plants actually have such high moisture content that they offer some fire protection. Cacti and succulents are prime examples. These selections resist combustion under a shower of burning embers and ash, and they can provide a natural barrier between your home and an approaching fire.
Another thing to think about is where to site your plants. There are specific guidelines to help you with this. First, you need to divide your landscape into four zones, with Zone 1 being the area closest to your home and Zone 4 the farthest. Zone 1 is defined as the area 0-30 feet from a house. Plants suitable for planting in Zone 1 should have a high moisture content, like succulents. Zone 2, which is 30-60 feet from the house, can include lawn, groundcovers and erosion-controlling grasses. “Low fuel” plants (those that stay short and maintain an open branching pattern) should be established in Zone 3, 60-100 feet from the house. Finally, thinned native vegetation and grouped shrubs are appropriate for Zone 4, 100-200 feet from the house. As you establish these zones, it’s important to include “fuel breaks” (areas void of vegetation or inflammable fencing) to stop or slow a fire as it moves across the landscape.
Other design considerations include planting trees at least 15 feet from structures, being sure to avoid all power lines. Tree branches should be trimmed at least 10 feet from any chimney openings, and any tree branches growing from the ground up to 6 feet should be removed. Shrub groupings should be planted a minimum of 18 feet from one another. And while you might want to screen those aboveground fuel tanks, be sure to keep plantings at least 10 feet away from them.
It’s also good to know that some plants are naturally more flammable than others, so if you live in a fire-prone area, avoid planting pine trees, junipers and mountain laurels. Maintenance is an issue when it comes to fire prevention, too, so be sure to get in there and prune out any dead branches from trees or shrubs that haven’t naturally dropped them. Also remember to keep any brush, weeds and erosion-control grasses no taller than 3 inches. And finally, keep roofs and gutters free of leaves and pine needles, which are highly flammable.
What are some other easy things you can do to prepare your landscape for a wildfire? Well, avoid using organic mulch and consider rock, gravel or decomposed granite instead. Use stone or concrete to construct paths, and think about stucco, masonry or metal fencing instead of wood. If you do use wood, make sure any structures are built with heavy timbers or fire-retardant materials with a minimum 1-hour fire rating. Also be sure to include a solid skirt to enclose the underside of decks. And it’s always a good idea to consider installing a pool or pond in your yard. Not only will you enjoy it, it’s a great emergency water supply.
While firescaping may sound like a lot of work, please remember that any fire-safety measures you take will go a long way toward protecting you, your family and your home and possessions. Take a look at your landscape now and consider ways that you can reduce your fire risk. The precautions you take now will allow you to focus on what’s truly important in the face of wildfire danger.