Firewise Landscaping Part 1

In 2002, there was a story on the national news about a woman who longed to have a cabin in the woods of Colorado. Her husband located the land, built her this “cabin” at a cost of $7 million and they were very happy with their home. Then the wildfires of 2002 came and well, you can guess the rest. Or can you?

It seems that when they were in the process of building the cabin, they also took the time to explore the concept of “fire-wise landscaping” and so when the wildfires hit their area, even though everything around them and many of their neighbor’s homes were burned to the ground, their home in the woods was spared.

Fire-wise landscaping is a concept that hasn’t been much talked about- yet. But as populations continue to encroach upon forested and wooded areas in wilderness lands, I think it is going to be a topic that will have to be more seriously considered. Co-existing with nature will come to include not only co-existing with wildlife, but also with wildfires as those are often a product of nature’s lightening strikes in the summer.

This is the first in a series of articles on fire-wise landscaping starting with the basic concepts and principles and how to begin. In future articles I will talk about which specific plants do best to create a haven around your house and property, how to maintain them and provide a yearly checklist for you to follow.

Fire-wise landscaping conjures up an image of rocks, gravel and gray areas. This doesn’t have to be the case, however, if a little planning is done in advance. What you are really trying to accomplish is to create a “defensible space” around your property. Defensible space is defined as the area between a structure and an oncoming wildfire where nearby vegetation has been modified to reduce a wildfire’s intensity. This means that if a fire does come, at least you have a chance of keeping your buildings from burning. It also creates an area in which firefighters or other emergency personnel have room to do their jobs properly to save your property.

When beginning your landscape plan, check with your local fire department or perhaps your architect to determine what the recommended defensible space zone is around your home. This will vary depending on whether you are in a woodland setting or are building in a field, although both have special concerns. Grassland fires can be as swift moving as those in wooded areas.

Incorporate the use of gravel and rock walkways, stepping stone paths and perhaps rock gardens into your landscape plan. These serve to breakup the continuity of the vegetative material and in turn can act as somewhat of a fire break or at least will serve to modify fire behavior and slow it’s spread across your property.

When choosing plants, be sure to use a good mix in your garden plans. This varies the amount of moisture that is held in the vegetation, as each plant is different in it’s moisture holding capabilities. This diversity is also more visually pleasing.

While it is always a good idea to use mulches in your gardens, watch closely the types that you choose. Pine bark, thick layers of pine needles or other mulches that easily carry fire should be limited or eliminated totally if you live in a very fire prone area. Commercially prepared mulches that you can keep wet through irrigation or sprinkler systems, though still of some concern, are a better choice.

Be creative in your landscaping plans. Consider the use of large urns, pottery, garden art or other containers as additions to your garden. Large pottery pieces or urns in the middle of a rock garden, accented with interesting stakes can create quite an interesting and unusual garden.

If you are planning to put in a deck or patio, consider the use of concrete, flagstone, rock or one of the new plastic materials to construct with instead of wood. These materials will not burn and will not collect burning materials in between the planks as wood decking will.

If your property is steep, then you have other things to consider. Add steps and walkways on steep areas for three purposes. First these additions will help to reduce the steepness of the slope which then reduces the rate at which a fire can grow. Retaining walls will also become physical barriers to fire spread and will help to deflect heat should a fire come. Second, the addition of a walkway also acts as a physical barrier for fire spread, as well as making your home more enjoyable and easier to maneuver around. The addition of concrete, flagstone or rock steps will make it easier for firemen to access your property and keeps them safer, should the need for it arise.

With the recent 416 fire and the Burro fire in our neighborhood, if you haven’t considered the possibility of changing or altering your landscape to make it more fire-proof, perhaps you should. Take some time to think about what plants you like, what you need to accomplish in order to be able to sleep well at night, continue to watch my articles for ideas, or visit your local garden center for their recommendations. Your home holds too many precious things to have them all go up in smoke!