By Gary Jones
Due to a unique combination of climate and terrain, California will always suffer from wildfires. But with appropriate planning, planting and maintenance, these fires won’t be devastating to homeowners.
A large portion of our state is a Mediterranean-type climate, situated in a region close to the sea with hot, dry summers, recurring winds and mountainous terrain. All of these create favorable conditions for fire. In drought conditions, the risk of fire is even greater.
Wildfires can destroy everything in their path if they are not stopped quickly. It has been shown time and again that the proper selection of landscape plants and good maintenance will go a long way toward reducing fire danger. Behind roof type, the plants surrounding a house have an enormous influence in determining a home’s survival during a wildfire. “Firescaping” rationale states that vegetation will either lead a fire to a structure or stop it.
One of the greatest impacts a homeowner can have on protecting property and personal safety is to create and maintain a fire-resistant landscape. Planning ahead and consistent maintenance can help stop devastating property loss and even loss of life. With careful planning, a home garden or landscape can be both fire-resistant and water-wise.
As you make plant choices for fire-prone areas, remember that there is no such thing as a fireproof plant — only fire resistant. Just about any plant will burn if temperatures get hot enough. Also, keep in mind that it takes about a year for plants (water-wise, fire-resistant or not) to become established.
Here are helpful preventative steps to take in firescaping your lawn and garden:
- Understand which plants are fire-resistant. Research their fire retardant abilities as well as their drought tolerance.
- Remove any dead, diseased or dying trees or shrubs.
- Flammable trees and shrubs should be replaced even if they have adapted to require little water.
- Keep brush and dried grass removed from the perimeter of your property so that you have a firebreak.
- Keep shrubs and trees thinned out. Dense brush leads to dead debris buildup and more fuel. Keep skirts removed from palms.
- Keep irrigation systems in good working order and regularly check for adequate coverage. Even in a drought, do not stop watering. Water within the guidelines and restrictions of your city or local municipality.
- Keep your landscape in good condition: Feed with organic fertilizers to reduce quick, soft growth that often results from high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers; keep plants free of pests and diseases, reducing damaged or dead growth; and keep yards and gardens free of weeds.
- Reduce thatch buildup (dead leaves and stems) on groundcovers like ivy and lantana. Mowing every two years will keep the dead material removed.
- Keep roofs and gutters free of dead leaves and other debris.
As you plan your water-wise, fire-resistant garden, think in terms of four zones. Each planting zone is designed around a particular purpose.
Zone 1 is the Garden Zone, the space next to your home outward to 30 feet. It is best to keep this space open. Plants in these areas will be the highest water users of your low-water palette, a typical practice of Mediterranean-climate gardens.
Moving away from your home from 30 to 70 feet, plants should be able to stop a ground fire. Zone 2 is called a Fuel Break. Plants chosen for this zone should reach a height of only 18 inches and be able to resist embers.
Zone 3 is a Transition Zone and designed to slow fires. It is approximately 71 to 120 feet from the house. It is composed of drought-tolerant plants and is typically not watered once established. It might be comprised of, for instance, a barrier planting of shrubs like rockrose that can survive on rainwater.
For residents whose gardens adjoin foothills or natural, open spaces, these Natural Zone areas make up Zone 4. If your home and garden is surrounded by other homes, you won’t have a natural area.
Not all wildfires can be prevented, but we can all certainly help deter wildfires from our homes and do our best to keep everyone safe.
—Gary Jones is the Chief Horticulturist at Armstrong Garden Centers, which has locations on Friars Road and Morena Boulevard. Email your drought and gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.