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Reduce Risk with Firewise Landscaping

| Landscape

Asprawling rustic ranch home with scenic mountaintop vistas, overlooking rolling, lush green hills, or a storybook cottage nestled in a wooded canyon is the dream of many homeowners.

Some acquire their dream home in the hills, but every year we see devastated owners who have lost their homes due to fire.

I can’t remember a year when a fire didn’t destroy some part of a hillside or mountain. This year, we seem to have an abundance of fires, from Arizona to Texas, to New Mexico, California, Tennessee, etc.

Landscape professionals, who provide services to residents in hillside or canyon communities that are in fire-prone areas, should be familiar with ways of minimizing their clients’ risk of losing their properties. A little planning when it comes to designing the landscape can help prevent a dream home from going up in flames. Building materials used in hillside homes are important, too, so encourage your clients to invest in non-flammable roofing materials and to use as many fire-resistant materials as possible in the construction of their dream home.


Some design ideas are as simple as keeping trees from overhanging the house, or planting a nice expanse of lush green lawn in the yard–and the client will love the space to enjoy that million-dollar view and their surroundings. More importantly, a large expanse of turf between the home and flammable trees or brush gives the homeowner a cushion of defensible space. Patios, walkways, tennis courts, driveways, swimming pools, fountains and other hardscape areas also provide a ”firebreak” to prevent wildfires from getting too close to a home, yet they also provide access and enjoyable outdoor living and recreational space.

Landscape architect Owen E. Dell, ASLA, owner of Owen E. Dell & Associates, Santa Barbara, California, and also a noted author, educator, and co-host of the popular television sitcom Garden Wise Guys, has seen many wildfires in the area destroy hundreds of homes over the years. “This was shocking to me,” he said. “I had clients and friends who lost homes. I began to realize that when fires move into urban and suburban areas—which they do more frequently now—it’s not about nature anymore, it becomes a landscaping

fire.” Dell says he knows that arrangement and maintenance of plants and trees is very important, and he has seen homes with firewise landscaping survive wildfires. “The most successful firescapes are done on a community-wide basis, so that fires don’t jump from house to house, often with overgrown trees or plants providing the fuel to the flames,” says Dell.

Fire departments across the country are also realizing the benefits of defensible landscaping, and are imposing regulations that help preserve homes in the event of a fire.

Brush removal recommended by many fire departments can cut down on fire hazards, but may be detrimental to slope and ecosystem stability, according to Dell. It’s better to thin out the native vegetation, but leave as many root systems as you can.

As the amount of open space decreases and the number of homes increases, extra caution is needed in landscape planning. There has to be ample space for firefighters to access the structure in order to protect it, and surrounding plants should be selected wisely to prevent a tragedy.

Firewise landscaping, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), reduces the risk of fire by reducing the amount of flammable vegetation surrounding the home, and increasing the moisture content of the remaining vegetation. The NFPA says that the ‘home ignition zone’ extends up to 200 feet surrounding the entire home in high hazard areas. To lessen the impact of fires, they recommend landscaping using specific ‘zones’ to surround the home.

“We have the science to support the zone landscaping concept. If the defensible area is maintained to prevent radiant heat from getting close to the house and embers from landing on the house and other structures, we know that the home has a good chance of surviving a fire,” says Michele Steinberg, NEPA Firewise Communities Program Manager. “The best scenario is if the entire community adopts these landscaping principles.”

“A Community Zone Firewise Plan prevents wildfires from destroying the neighborhood, and fires from jumping from a tree in your yard to your neighbor’s rooftop,” she adds. If neighborhood trees are too close together, fire can start in the crown of the trees, and spread quickly throughout the area. Neighbors should work together to keep trees trimmed and at a distance from structures.


Zone landscaping plans have a proven success rate of keeping homes safe, or at least preventing total loss during wildfires. Here is the zone concept:

Zone 1 – This area should circle all structures for at least 30 feet, and should be very well irrigated, with low-growing plants, carefully spaced, that are free of resins, oils and waxes, which can easily burn. Lawns that are closely mowed are a good choice. Trees should be trimmed six to ten feet from the ground.

Every area of the country has specific plants that do well in their environment and are fire-resistant. It’s no surprise that these usually consist of native plants. Native plant material has been around for millions of years and has survived many wildfires. Large, flammable trees should be kept as far away as possible from structures. Fire-resistant materials should be used in all patio furniture, play sets, and other outdoor furnishings. Dead vegetation needs to be cleared from under a deck.

Propane tanks and firewood stacks should not be placed close to the house or other structures. They should be stored more than 30 feet away from any structures. Consider Xeriscaping if the area is affected by water-use restrictions.

Zone 2 – This area is 30 to 100 feet from the home and other struc tures, and should include plants and trees that are low growing, well-irrigated and flame-resistant. Fuel breaks, such as driveways, walkways and lawns, will keep flames from raging toward the home. High moisture content annuals and perennials are also good choices, along with water features, rocks and stone paths. There should be spaces of 20 feet between individual trees and 30 feet between clusters of two or three trees. Do not let the crowns of the trees touch. Prune trees up six to ten feet from the ground. No trees should overhang the house or other structures.

A mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees is encouraged in this zone.

Zone 3 – The areas 100 to 200 feet from the house can have taller trees, but vegetation between trees should be removed, and tree canopies should not be touching. Any woody debris on the ground, such as fallen limbs, branches, and leaves should be removed, as these provide fuel for wildfires.

Zone 4 – The areas furthest from the home, and adjoining natural or wild areas, need to be managed by selective thinning, clearing of leaves and other highly flammable materials. The look can be natural without becoming a hazard.

Maintaining the firewise landscape requires:

• Keeping trees and shrubs pruned from six to ten feet from the ground. •Remove leaf clutter, dead and overhanging branches. • Mow the lawn on a regular basis, and dispose of cuttings promptly. •Maintain the irrigation system so it is always working properly.

The NFPA also recommends becoming familiar with local regulations regarding vegetative clearance, debris disposal and fire safety requirements for equipment.

Some construction materials you might consider if building, renovating or remodeling a home in the hills include roofing materials with a Class A, B, or C rating (composition shingles, metal, clay and cement tiles), fire-resistant building materials for exterior walls, such as cement, plaster, stucco or masonry, and double-paned or tempered glass. Enclose all eaves, fascias soffits and vents with metal screens.


As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A little planning can prevent the heartbreak of a home devastated by wildfire.

The important things, according to Dell, are to cut back all of the fine, dead, aerial fuel, which is all of the twiggy stuff up in the canopy, to make sure that the plants are not touching each other in a continuous line up to the roof of the house, to manage moisture content, and to keep tree limbs from overhanging the house and other structures. Lift the canopy of trees up to at least ten feet from the ground, so that fires do not leap up into the trees and cause a crown fire high in the treetops.

Any fencing that comes in contact with a structure should be fireproof, according to the NFPA. Iron work or other metals, rock, cinderblock, brick and stone are good choices for gates, walls and fences.

Having as muc h infor mation as possib le o n th e sub ject of f irewis e landscaping can assist landscape professionals, as well as ho meowners, community leaders and others. Firew ise communities have been established in more than 720 communities in 40 states to address these issues. Their website, www.firewise.org, is a national multi-agency program that involves those who protec t p e ople , property and natural resources from wildfire damage. The website offers abundant inf ormation ab out best practices, plant lists for various areas of the country and other resources. The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension offers online instruction to those interested in firewis e landscaping. According to their graduates, “This course puts you in sync with what companies and se rvi ces are look ing for, such as fire departments and homeowners associations.”

Most times, a landscape contractor can look at a property and see where the danger of fire might occur. A few simple changes could prove priceless to the landscaping company and its clients.

No landscaping is fireproof. Every plant will burn if the fire is ho t enough , but the di ffer ence may b e that by c reatin g defensible spac e, someone’s dream home might be save d f rom becoming o nly a memory.
 
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