How to Firescape Your Yard

As fire season approaches, homeowners who live in high-risk areas can take a number of natural steps to help protect their property

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Jun 01, 2005
As fire season approaches, homeowners who live in high-risk areas can take a number of natural steps to help protect their property

When a lost hiker lit a signal fire in the tinder-dry chaparral east of San Diego in late 2003, the flames quickly flared out of control. The resulting firestorm ripped through 80,000 acres in the first ten hours. By the time the blaze was finally brought under control, more than 2,200 houses had been incinerated.

During the last decade, wildfires have torched more than 38 million acres in the lower 48 states—an area equal roughly to the size of Georgia. And as the massive blazes that have ravaged parts of Florida, Kentucky and other eastern states in recent years demonstrate, it’s not just the West that burns. Indeed, this danger is escalating in many regions as suburbs push deeper into forested areas. In Florida, for example, more than a half-million people have moved into the most fire-prone parts of the state since 1990.

As fire season approaches, however, homeowners who live in high-risk areas can help protect their property. "There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the chance that your home will catch on fire," says Alan Long, an associate professor with the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation. One of the most important, he says, is to use fire-prevention landscaping techniques on the property around your house.

Owen Dell agrees. The Santa Barbara, California, landscape architect teaches courses in so-called "firescaping" that show people how to "take the energy out of a fire" by managing the surroundings, both the natural and planted vegetation. Some insurance companies in western states, Dell points out, are beginning to press homeowners to minimize risks from wildfires. Eventually people who do not comply may face higher premiums or even cancelled policies.

Following are some tips from experts on ways to firescape your yard. There are no guarantees, but these guidelines may help your home withstand a blaze.

Choose fire-resistant plants: Any plant will burn if conditions are right, but some ignite much faster than others. "Most deciduous trees and shrubs are fire-resistant if they are well-maintained," says Amy Jo Waldo, an assistant professor with the Oregon State University Extension Service. "Look for plants with moist and supple leaves, no strong odors and a waterlike sap." Some good trees to plant are native varieties of maple, dogwood, alder, birch, beech and ash. Native shrubs include buttonbush, beautyberry and hydrangea. Consult an extension agent or local nursery for the best plants to use that also are native to your area.
Avoid evergreens: "Plants with aromatic leaves, volatile waxes or oils and resinous sap are quick to burn," says Waldo. Conifers can be especially volatile. Some firefighters, in fact, consider pines, spruces and firs as "green gasoline." Other potentially fire-prone plants to avoid cultivating near your house include bayberry, holly, juniper, lavender, palmetto, rosemary and wax myrtle.

Keep plants watered during fire season: As a rule, well-watered healthy plants burn slowly. But even fire-resistant plants will quickly go up in smoke if they are dried out. Be careful not to overwater, however. Some plants are adapted to arid conditions and will die with too much moisture, creating a different sort of headache for homeowners.

Develop defensible space: "Fires need fuel to burn," says Long. "You should create a good, clear zone around your house." Within this buffer zone, which should be a minimum of 30 feet, you do not have to remove all plants. You should, however, remove any trees and branches growing within 10 feet of your home, cut down any tree that drops debris on the roof or in the gutters, and thin the remaining trees. Shrubs should be placed well away from your home and pruned on a regular basis. All of the plants in your defensible space should be fire resistant.

Stop vines from growing up trees: They create a "fuel ladder" that can shoot a ground fire up into the canopy, turning the blaze into a dangerous crown fire. Shrubs or small trees planted under larger trees also can spread flames upward.

Create plant islands: Arrange shrubs and other plants in small, irregular clusters, or islands, that are at least 15 feet apart. Uninterrupted masses of plants could help spread a fire. Also, do not use shrubs as a screen in front of a woodpile or fuel tank, and keep lawns mowed to a height of six inches or less.

Use mulches: They conserve moisture and keep weeds at a minimum. However, do not mulch with pine bark or pine needles in fire-prone areas.

Create firebreaks: Incorporate concrete or stone patios, walkways, driveways and walls into your landscape design. They can double as firebreaks.

Perform regular maintenance: According to Long, some of the 400 homes that burned during the Los Alamos, New Mexico, wildfire in 2000 were not in the direct path of the blaze. But they went up in flames when wayward sparks blew in, igniting pine needles on the roof or other flammable materials in the yard.

Doreen Cubie wrote about attracting orioles to your backyard in the February/March issue.

Plants That Do Double Duty 
Many native plants that will resist fires also feed wildlife. Red buckeye, common hackberry, serviceberry, flowering dogwood, Washington hawthorn and black tupelo are just some of the trees that fit both criteria, as do some species of oaks. Fire-resistant native shrubs include highbush blueberry, red-osier dogwood, spicebush, sumac, beautyberry and several types of viburnum. To learn more about native plants and how to attract wildlife to your property, see Certified Wildlife Habitat.

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