When People Become Defensive About Fire

Residents use landscaping techniques to protect their homes and businesses from harm

08-01-2003 // Mark Wexler

AMY LAWRENCE vividly remembers the day three years ago when she returned to the street in Los Alamos where, only a week earlier, her house had stood. "Though we knew the fire had gone through our neighborhood, it was still a shock to see the devastation," she says. "Before the blaze, we had a nice home with a beautiful yard. Afterward, my husband and I weren't even sure which lot was ours."

The Lawrences were among the 400 families that were left homeless by the so-called "Cerro Grande" fire, which swept through the New Mexico community of about 11,000 people in May 2000. It was the most infamous of the record-setting 122,827 wildfires that ravaged millions of acres in the United States that year. In its charred wake, it left some community leaders and residents determined to implement defensive landscaping techniques to protect homes and businesses from future forest fires. Many of those techniques have since been adopted by the Lawrences and other area homeowners.

"The fire was a real wake-up call for the community," says Carlos Valdez, an urban horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "Most residents had a false sense of security before the blaze, but now many of them understand that they have to take steps themselves to help protect their homes." Thousands of other Americans experienced the same wake-up call last summer, when severe drought helped spawn wildfires that burned more than seven million acres--an area roughly the size of New Hampshire.

With broad areas of the country still caught in the grips of drought, thousands of other people are now bracing themselves for another long season of home-threatening blazes. "Drought is a severe problem, particularly in the West where forests are tinderbox dry," says Eric Palola, a forest issues expert and director of NWF's Northeastern Natural Resource Center. "But Americans also are still paying the price for decades of heavy-handed fire suppression on public lands--suppression that disturbed the natural cycle of burning and regeneration."

From the chaparral-covered hills of Southern California to the longleaf pine savannas of the Southeast, fire has always played a key ecological role in the health and perpetuation of forests and native shrubs in many regions of the country. "Fire has such a bad reputation that we commonly forget it can actually encourage and stimulate plant growth," says Seth Reice, a University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill ecologist who has conducted extensive research on the benefits of natural disasters.

Fires produce ash that is rich in nutrients. They open the forest canopy, allowing more light to penetrate to the forest floor. After the massive 1988 fires that swept through Yellowstone, scientists found several plant species that had all but disappeared from the national park growing again. Lodgepole pines, many of the which depend on the heat from periodic blazes to release seeds from their resin-glued cones, flourished in the aftermath of the fires in many of the park's burned areas.

Though such infernos do degrade habitat in the short term, wildlife usually does not suffer. "Most species are not affected at all by fire," notes Don Despain, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist. Large mammals usually move out of the paths of approaching fires, while many smaller creatures often wait in underground burrows until the heat subsides. Despain's research found that 80 percent of bird species feed equally well in burned and unburned forest, three to four years after a blaze.

Traditionally, periodic natural burns cleared out woodland debris and understory growth in many woodlands without damaging taller, thick-barked trees. But fire suppression in national forests and parks allowed such debris to build up on the ground, producing fuel that frequently ignited intense "crown fires" such as the Cerro Grande. The destructive effects of these fires on people have been compounded by unchecked sprawl in parts of the West. "Many communities have spread out into fire-prone areas without smart-growth planning or ordinances requiring fire-resistant building materials and appropriate landscaping," observes Palola.

Los Alamos was one of those communities. It was a sleepy little town until 1942, when federal authorities selected it as the site for its top-secret Manhattan Project. As the scope of the Los Alamos National Laboratory expanded to other projects in subsequent decades, the town grew, with some residents building homes in wooded areas where fire danger is high.

Along with state forestry agents, Valdez began preaching the benefits of so-called defensive landscaping to local residents long before the Cerro Grande fire. Such landscaping includes thinning out trees on private property to leave a minimum of 10 to 12 feet between each plant, and keeping any trees left standing 30 feet or more away from buildings. Valdez also told homeowners to clean up combustible debris on the ground, keep their lawns mowed to a height of three inches or less, and create buffer zones around their homes that include fire-resistant vegetation and patios constructed of nonflammable materials.

Though many Los Alamos homeowners balked at the idea of cutting down precious trees, at least 200 families in the area did take steps to protect their property before the Cerro Grande fire. One of those homeowners, Howard Cady, had sought out advice from Valdez six years ago, shortly after buying a house on a three-acre lot adjacent to the Santa Fe National Forest. "There were way too many trees on the lot when we bought it, and I was worried about that," says Cady, who single-handedly removed at least 300 trees around his home. The retired chemist reduced tree density on his property to about 50 per acre, creating open spaces in the process. In contrast, tree density on nearby national forest land was estimated to be about 1,000 per acre.

"The thinning technique allowed only a low-heat fire to burn on our land during the Cerro Grande fire," says Cady. "I feel certain that the precautions we took saved our house from the flames that consumed many of our neighbors' homes."

A couple of miles away, Amy Lawrence now looks with pride at the new home she and her husband built atop the ashes of the old on their half-acre lot. "We tried not to use much wood in the reconstruction," she says. The couple built a deck out of recycled plastic and a retaining wall out of stone. The building itself is made of stucco, with a metal roof. "If another large fire came through here," she says, "the house might melt, but it certainly wouldn't burn."

Lawrence's yard now includes both fire-resistant and drought-tolerant native plants. The house is surrounded on all sides by concrete patio, low-mowed lawn and gravel driveway. And the entire lot is rimmed by a rock-lined moat that serves as a catch basin for rain and other water runoff, and as a buffer against potential ground fire. It gives the impression that a rocky stream runs around the perimeter of the property. "One thing we've learned is that you can have a fire-resistant yard that is still very attractive," says Lawrence, who is a licensed master gardener.

These days, she is one of several volunteers who are helping Valdez and other Los Alamos officials spread the gospel to area residents. Another volunteer, Fred Gross, is implementing NWF's Habitat Stewards™ training program in the community. The retired Los Alamos lab nuclear physicist is working with Lawrence and other local master gardeners to show area homeowners how to incorporate water-conservation and wildlife-attracting landscaping into fire-suppression techniques. "It's something anyone who lives in an area where fire is a threat should be doing," he says.

In at least one New Mexico community, homeowners now have no choice. Last summer, the village of Ruidoso passed the first local ordinance in the state that requires property owners to clean up forest debris and reduce flammable sources on as much as two and a half acres around their homes. It also mandates that new buildings be constructed only of fire-resistant materials. "The Los Alamos fire raised a lot of concern here," says Rick DeIaco, the village's urban forester who now spends much of his time showing residents how to create defensible spaces around their homes. "We know people don't like to be told what to do on their land, but almost everyone in town supports the ordinance. These kinds of measures clearly are necessary."

Seth Reice agrees. "If people insist on building in these ecosystems, then communities should adopt ecologically based zoning regulations," he says. "Fire is a natural disturbance, and we must accept it, respect it and even appreciate it." The payoff, he adds, "will be healthy, dynamic and diverse ecosystems."

Editorial Director Mark Wexler visited with homeowners in Los Alamos to report this article.

Defending Your Home
Defensive landscaping, say experts, should be part of any prevention strategy for people who live in fire-prone areas. Following are some of the steps horticulturists recommend:

  • Create a buffer zone of a minimum of 30 feet (preferably more) around your house or other buildings by clearing out all flammable vegetation and other combustible materials.

  • Leave a minimum of 10 feet between all trees on your property, thinning out where needed so tree crowns do not overlap.

  • Remove all tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground.

  • Remove dead branches and other debris from rooftops and gutters, and cover all chimneys with screens.

  • Keep all grass and weeds mowed to a height of three inches or less.

  • Maintain an outdoor water supply, including a hose and nozzle that can reach all parts of the house.

  • Consult with local horticulturists, county extension offices or regional native plant societies for the names of the best fire-resistant, drought-tolerant native plants to use in the area where you live.

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