Fire wise landscape by the Philbin Group Landscape Architecture. Original photo on Houzz
Fire wise landscape by the Philbin Group Landscape Architecture. Original photo on Houzz

By Eileen Kelly | Houzz

Fire season is almost over, and so far San Diego has been very lucky with no major wildfires, but it’s not to soon to begin thinking about firescaping your home for the long term.

Firescaping incorporates the design of the landscape and property surrounding a home to lessen its susceptibility to fire. This can be achieved through a well-thought-out landscape design plan that specifies less combustible plants, incorporates fire-resistant materials and follows the advice and guidelines determined by fire-safe organizations.

In this article I’ve identified several landscape design strategies as well as some of the guidelines I’ve gathered from various professionals and fire-safe organizations in California. These methods will help keep your property and home safe without having to sacrifice having a beautiful and thriving landscape. For specific guidelines in your area, please refer to your state, county or local fire safety organizations.

Planning Your Landscape

Protect your home and property by incorporating fire safety guidelines and “buffer zones,” called defensible spaces, during the landscape design planning stages and beyond. These guidelines usually include the use and proper placement of fire-resistant plants and trees and other fire-resistant materials that you can incorporate into the landscape areas surrounding your home. Creating defensible spaces is also critical for safe access by firefighters.

Defensible space zones. Graphic from Cal Fire

Create and maintain defensible space. This infographic shows the recommended defensible space surrounding a home in California. Two zones make up the guidelines for the 100 feet of defensible space, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is better known as Cal Fire.

Zone 1: The home defense zone is within 30 feet of the house. Within this zone you want to remove all dead or dry vegetation, as well as any dead or dying plants, and keep tree branches at least 10 feet from your chimney and other trees. Relocate woodpiles into Zone 2.

Zone 2: The reduced fuel zone is 30 to 100 feet from the home, or to the property line. Within this zone make sure you cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches. Create horizontal spacing between shrubs that are two to six times the shrub’s height, depending on the ground’s slope. Space trees 10 to 30 feet apart, depending on the ground’s slope. Remove all tree branches less than 6 feet from the ground. If shrubs are growing underneath a tree, allow clearance space of at least three times the shrub’s height to the tree’s lowest branch.

These guidelines were created for some regions in California. Check with your local fire jurisdiction to determine the guidelines and laws in your area.

Incorporate nonflammable hardscape materials. This strategy will create fire-safe zones adjacent to your home and help keep your home safe should a fire approach. Nonflammable materials include gravel, concrete, stone, steel, decomposed granite and other fire-resistant materials. Use these materials for walkways, patios, retaining walls, planter edging, driveways or planter bed mulch. Tour an Eco-Friendly Home Built to Withstand a Bushfire.

Slow down or stop a fire in its path. This is an important goal in the initial landscape design phase as well as during ongoing maintenance.

  • Break up large planting areas with a combination of fire-resistant plants and noncombustible materials.
  • Reduce the quantity and the size of plants to reduce the fuel for fire.
  • Plant groundcovers and shrubs in clumps or groups, rather than in a continuous pattern, to create breaks between them.
  • Avoid plant overcrowding to minimize plant competition for available water and nutrients.
  • Boulders, rocks, gravel or stone in pathways and as a ground cover for bare spaces help create an effective fire break.
  • Deciduous trees are often more fire resistant than evergreen trees because they have a higher moisture content when in leaf.
  • A property on a steep slope with larger vegetation requires greater spacing between
    trees and shrubs than a level property that has smaller and sparse plantings.

Other landscape design features that can slow down or stop a spreading fire:

  • Water features, ponds, streams or swimming pools.
  • Driveways, walkways, patios and parking areas composed of nonflammable materials.
  • A lawn positioned between your home and other plantings. Since drought-stricken areas present other concerns, there are many alternatives to the water-thirsty traditional lawn that are also very effective in slowing down a fire.

Create a fire-safe zone around wood decking. Although decking products not treated with fire retardant are combustible, some decking is not highly combustible on its own, according to Cal Fire. Typically, other fuel sources, such as plant debris or other combustible materials stored under or on top of the deck, as well as combustible vegetation surrounding it, contribute to deck fires. Keep this in mind during fire season, and maintain your decks to keep them free of easily-ignited materials such as leaves and needles that accumulate between the deck boards, along the home’s siding and below the deck.

If you have your heart set on a new wood deck, look for wood that is treated with a fire retardant or other fire-resistant building material. Hardwoods from South America, such as ipe and cumaru, have high fire resistance (and many are sustainably farmed). A fully enclosed deck will offer added protection by eliminating a heat trap below it.

Another good tactic is to isolate the deck from fire by adding noncombustible materials, such as stone, concrete or gravel, along the front sides and below the deck to create a fire barrier. Hire a Local Architect to Draw Up Plans for a Fire-Wise Landscape.

Planting Your Landscape

Choose fire-resistant plants. There are no fireproof plants, but plants that possess a high moisture content are more fire-resistant. Many native plants are considered to be among the most fire-resistant plant for fire-prone regions.

Typically, native trees and shrubs are adapted to their native regions, deep-rooted and proficient at acquiring water from the soil and retaining it in their leaves. There are also many non-native plants that possess fire-resistant qualities. Some characteristics of fire-resistant plants:

  • They have moist and supple leaves.
  • They have little dead wood and tend not to accumulate dry wood and leaves.
  • Sap or resin properties are low.

Check your local resources for the recommended fire-resistant plants and trees in your region. Model Your Landscape After One of These Beautiful Designs.

Add succulents. By now, most people are aware of the drought-tolerant and easy-care benefits of succulent plants. Besides these favorable attributes, succulents are also extremely fire-resistant. Succulents and cactuses store water in their leaves, stems and roots, making them some of the top fire-resistant plant choices. Many succulents require frost-free regions to live, but there are also species that survive in low temperatures. Check with your local nurseries for succulent varieties that thrive in your region.

In a recent conversation I had with author and succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin, she shared a story recounting how a grouping of succulents had shielded a vulnerable corner of a Southern California home during a devastating wildfire a few years ago. The homeowner says that the flames came within 6 feet of her home and then stopped.

She attributed the fire’s halt to the succulent Aloe arborescens, ironically called torch aloe. This aloe can reach 4 to 8 feet tall and wide and grows in USDA zones 9 to 11. Baldwin further explained that the fleshy leaves of succulents may cook in the fire, but they don’t burst into flames or spread the fire, thanks to their juicy water-holding attributes.

In addition to their drought-tolerant benefits and striking architectural beauty, succulent plants, along with noncombustible ground covers and hardscape materials, can serve as an effective and attractive “living safety shield” and offer added protection against fire to a home and its surroundings.

You can see the eucalyptus trees shredding bark and the debris scattered beneath — deadly fuel for a fire, left. Juniper is shown, right, with unmaintained tall dry grass — two unwanted fire fuel companions.
Avoid highly flammable plants. Shrubs and trees that contain resins or oils in their stems, leaves or needles are highly flammable. Some of the offenders include juniper shrubs and eucalyptus, pine, spruce and fir trees.

Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is one of the most flammable trees and is capable of releasing a flammable gas that sends out fireballs during a fire.

Juniper shrubs (Juniperus spp.) also contain flammable, volatile oils and accumulate dry leaves and needles, and they burn fast in a fire.

Check with local fire-safe resources for the fire-prone plants and trees to avoid using in your region.

Maintaining Your Landscape

  • Prune all trees so that the lowest limbs are 6 to 10 feet off the ground.
  • Remove dead branches and debris in trees and shrubs and around all plantings.
  • Remove dead and dying plants.
  • Use a fire-resistant mulch material or gravel in planting beds to help retain the moisture in the soil.
  • Keep your irrigation system well-maintained.
  • Familiarize yourself with local fire-safe regulations and recommendations regarding vegetation clearances.
  • In low- or no-summer rain regions, be sure to keep plants irrigated. For native trees and shrubs that are not on a scheduled irrigation cycle, deep irrigate at least once per month, or as needed.

Other Fire-Wise Maintenance Practices. The roof is one of the most vulnerable structures of a home during a wildfire. Fire-retardant roofing materials are of prime importance for protection and fire prevention.

  • Keep tree limbs at least 10 feet from rooftops, chimneys, power lines and other structures.
  • Keep leaves and other debris off of roofs and eaves.
  • Keep your home’s gutters free of leaves and needles, as they can easily ignite.

In the event of a fire, you can reduce how quickly the fire spreads and increase the survival of your home, your landscape and your family. There is a wealth of valuable information available through countless fire-safe organizations worldwide to further guide you.