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Newsletter #7

12-20-07

Fire-Safe and Water-Smart Landscapes

With the recent flurry of devastating fires in Southern California, you may be wondering whether you can have water efficient landscapes that are also fire safe. The answer is YES!

Over 1,800 homes were swallowed up by the furious flames of the Southern California wildfires this fall. There is no escape from some of the large-scale fires that sweep through the fire-prone wildland/urban interface where homes are surrounded by woodland and native vegetation, land where major development is now occurring. However, in many cases homeowners can reduce their vulnerability to fire while saving water by planting and maintaining fire-safe landscapes that are also water efficient.

Three basic tenets of fire-safe landscaping include creating an area of defensible space, carefully selecting and placing plants, and maintaining fire-safe landscape practices.

  1. Create an area of defensible space. Adopt the "defensible space" concept in landscaping around the home. Following are some ideas from East Bay Municipal Utility District's publication, Firescape Landscaping to Reduce Fire Hazard regarding fire zones.
    • Zone 1 is the innermost zone, within thirty feet of the house, and should be the most fire resistant. Zone 1 is a good place for a small lawn, a succulent garden, a pool, or a patio of concrete, brick, or paving stones. Ideally, no vegetation over a few inches high should be planted within six feet of the house or under a deck or other overhang. Plantings in this zone should be mostly low-growing shrubs and groundcovers. Trees, if any, should be small and "clean" - that is, they should not accumulate or drop more dead material than can be consistently removed from the site.
    • Zone 2 is a transition zone on larger lots. Zone 2 is a good place for drought-tolerant groundcovers and low shrubs on drip irrigation. This is the space between manicured gardens adjacent to the house and fringe areas abutting open space or between groups of houses surrounded by open space. Larger shrubs and trees in this zone should be planted in widely spaced groups separated by areas of mulch or low groundcovers that break up the path of fire. Avoid any arrangement that facilitates movement of fire along the ground or from the ground up into the house or tree canopy.
    • Zone 3 may be the area furthest from the home on large lots, or it may consist of adjacent wildlands. Vegetation here may include larger trees and shrubs and native vegetation. Plants in Zone 3 may not be irrigated, but they should be well maintained. As in Zone 2, larger plants should be spaced widely and interspersed with lower plantings. The taller the plants, the more widely they should be spaced.
    • Zone 1 is the innermost zone, within thirty feet of the house, and should be the most fire resistant. Zone 1 is a good place for a small lawn, a succulent garden, a pool, or a patio of concrete, brick, or paving stones. Ideally, no vegetation over a few inches high should be planted within six feet of the house or under a deck or other overhang. Plantings in this zone should be mostly low-growing shrubs and groundcovers. Trees, if any, should be small and "clean" - that is, they should not accumulate or drop more dead material than can be consistently removed from the site.
    • Zone 2 is a transition zone on larger lots. Zone 2 is a good place for drought-tolerant groundcovers and low shrubs on drip irrigation. This is the space between manicured gardens adjacent to the house and fringe areas abutting open space or between groups of houses surrounded by open space. Larger shrubs and trees in this zone should be planted in widely spaced groups separated by areas of mulch or low groundcovers that break up the path of fire. Avoid any arrangement that facilitates movement of fire along the ground or from the ground up into the house or tree canopy.
    • Zone 3 may be the area furthest from the home on large lots, or it may consist of adjacent wildlands. Vegetation here may include larger trees and shrubs and native vegetation. Plants in Zone 3 may not be irrigated, but they should be well maintained. As in Zone 2, larger plants should be spaced widely and interspersed with lower plantings. The taller the plants, the more widely they should be spaced.

  2. Select and Place Plants Carefully. The general concept of selecting the right plant for right place applies to both fire safe and water efficient gardens.
    • Avoid highly flammable plants, those with leaves that are high in oils or low in moisture such as eucalyptus, cypress, juniper, pampas grass, and Scotch broom. Some "fire-resistant" water-wise plants are Agapanthus (Lily-of-the-Nile), Hemerocallis (Daylily) and Dwarf Pomegranate.
    • Create and maintain proper spacing of plants to prevent fire from spreading.
    • Choose plants that perform well in your climate and microclimate, and group plants that require similar amounts of water so that different kinds of plants can be irrigated appropriately. Healthy, well maintained plants suited to the climate are more resistant to fire.

  3. Maintain fire-safe landscape practices. Many good maintenance practices benefit the water efficiency as well as the fire safety of the home landscape.


  4. Ongoing Maintenance:
    • Cut tree branches back 15 to 20 feet from the house and at least 10 feet from the chimney.
    • Clean up and dispose of leaves, pine needles, and other plant litter.
    • Remove debris from roof and gutters.
    • Remove dead plants and dead branches from trees and shrubs.
    • Remove vines from trees, shrubs, and fences.
    • Compost or remove debris from the site.

    Annually before fire season:
    • Mow annual grasses and weeds to about three inches tall.
    • Cut back woody perennials and shrubs that accumulate dry material in a single season.
    • Thin overgrown vegetation.

    Every few years or as needed:
    • Cut back vines and low-growing groundcovers (e.g., ivy) to remove build-up of dry stems and dead leaves.
    • Cut back twiggy shrubs (e.g., rosemary) to renew.
    • Thin and reduce tree canopies to remove twiggy growth, maintain separation between trees, and reduce over all fuel load.
    • Keep lowest branches of trees pruned up ten to twenty feet, depending on the height of the tree, the height of nearby vegetation, and the distance between them.
    • Avoid topping trees as this causes excessive branching and twiggy growth that can increase the fire hazard.

For more detailed information about fire safe landscapes, contact your local fire department and refer to these websites and publications:

East Bay Municipal Utility District's Firescape:
Landscaping to Reduce Fire Hazard

Sunset magazine's Create a landscape that fights fire, http://www.sunset.com/sunset/home/article/0,20633,1641290,00.html

Home Landscaping for Fire, http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/docs/CE_homelandscaping.pdf

A Homeowner's Guide to Fire and Watershed Management at the Chaparral/Urban Interface, http://www.bewaterwise.com/pdf_firewatershed.pdf

Newsletter Archive:
 Newsletter #9: Don't Complain, Let It Rain!
 Newsletter #8: I Love My Meter!
 Newsletter #6: The Landscape of Your Heart’s Desire
 Newsletter #5: Weather and Water Watchers Websites
 Newsletter #4: Leaky Faucets
 Newsletter #3: Dual-flush Toilets
 Newsletter #2: Drought
 Newsletter #1: Welcome!








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