During the fires of 2002, I spent a day in Durango, at the site of the Missionary Ridge fire and as emotionally draining as that day was, I am more convinced than ever that fire-wise landscaping is an important part of your plans as a homeowner. The houses that were defensible with open space around them that the firemen could get into and foam along with those that had irrigated lawns were saved. Those that had large, old trees right up to the walls, lots of scrub brush and pine needles, for the most part, were not.
So what does one plant when trying to create an attractive, but defensible landscape around a home? Begin by thinking of the area around your home in three zones. The first zone is the closest to your house and extends out approximately 15 feet in all directions from the eaves and any attached areas such as decks or patios. The second zone is a transitional area. Its size depends on the lot on which the home is situated and can be anything between 75 to 125 feet. The third zone is an area of no particular size and extends from the edge of zone 2 (your defensible space) to the end of your property.
Zone 1 should be relatively sparse and plantings need to be chosen according to the type of house you have. If your home is sided with wood, then there should be little, if anything combustible in this space. Instead use rocks, lawn art, stone patios or other non-flammable treatments here. If your home has aluminum siding, stucco or other non-flammable material, then some plantings more resistant to fire are acceptable. These would include low growing shrubs, perennials, and other plants with a high moisture content. Try not to plant anything that will attain any size directly in front of windows, dryer vents, etc. In this area you will also want to remove all dead leaves, branches, pine needles etc.
Even grass should not come right up to the house. During certain times of the year these ignite and burn quickly and they can easily carry a fire right to your door. Mow the grass that is closest to your home the shortest, increasing height as you move outward.
Good ground cover plants for this area include native species type plant material, but many others are also suitable. Generally you want to get the plant material that is closest to your home to have a high moisture content, so that if there is a fire, these plants will resist burning easily. Remember that all vegetation is potentially fuel for a fire, so choose species that can be maintained easily.
Suggested plants for this zone include annuals, perennials, and low growing shrubs. Take care however, to break them up into small clumpings- do not make huge beds of wall to wall foliage that is potentially flammable. Select varieties of each of these plants that stay low, or can be pruned throughout the year to an acceptable height and size. And remember, the more moisture the plant holds, the better.
Zone 2 is supposed to be an area of “fuel reduction”. This means that more plants are acceptable in this space, but again, choose these with fire-wise materials in mind. In this area you need to thin trees and shrubs, or plant with open spaces between them, if you are doing new plantings. A recommended area is ten feet between the crowns or branches of each plant found in this zone. If your property is steep, allow more space than that between the plants. If this area includes trees, choose dwarf varieties or prune to a height of about ten feet, if possible. If trees are higher than this, be sure that if they were to catch fire and fall, that they would not hurt your home. Remove all dead plant material from the base of the trees, pine needles, etc.
Perennials, trees, shrubs, rock gardens, and just about anything else that you can keep manicured can be used in this area. If you store firewood in this area, or if your propane tank is located in this area, a recommended space away from your home for each of these is 30 feet.
Zone 3 includes the outer limits of your property and as such, needs less attention than the closer-in zones. However there are still some things that should be looked after in this zone such as you should thin dead, dying or diseased trees. Gather up pine needles, leaves and other debris on a regular basis. Mowing here is optional, but if possible, you might want to do so on a regular basis, just to keep the meadow down. Although any type of plant material is acceptable here, take into consideration that there are still types of plants that are more fire resistant than others. Bear in mind that plants like conifers tend to be more flammable due to their high oil or resin content, no matter how well watered. Trees such as aspens and other deciduous plants are more fire resistant because of their higher moisture content as well as their ability to lose their leaves which act as fuel for a fire. Keep the trees that form canopies in which fire can spread at the very outer limits of your property.
The fires in 2002 was a learning experience for many and I believe that homeowners have grown more fire savvy. There have been no structures lost so far this season, partly due to this, along with the heroic efforts of the firefighters. Keep the above zones in mind and use your imagination when working on your fire-wise landscape plan and your home can still be attractive as well as functional. There are lots of options available!