Landscaping strategies to protect properties from wildfires. By Helen M. Stone

If you live in the West, you know that this year has been the driest on record. In addition, temperatures soared to early unseasonable highs, making the threat of fire a looming issue that will cause great concern until the winter rains finally arrive (if they do … ).

You can offer a bit of reassurance to your current and potential clients by insuring that their landscapes are as “fire safe” as possible. Here are a few tips:

1. Assess the risk. Learn about the fire history in the neighborhood. Take property and area geographic features into account. Steep slopes are particularly vulnerable to fire, as fire low on the slope preheats vegetation higher up.

2. Ditch the dead stuff. This is the most obvious step, and can do the greatest good. Dead tree limbs, shrubs and grasses act as instant fuel and can burn hot enough to ignite other plants, even live ones.

The same goes for old fallen leaves, pine needles, bark and anything else flammable. If you can do nothing else, conduct a thorough landscape cleanup.

3. Go for the green. Although water is in short supply in the West, a well-maintained, green landscape is actually a fire-stopper. Keeping a bit of turf near the house, especially if it is used as a play, pet or lounging surface, is considered acceptable in most communities even during the drought. Bermudagrass or other drought-tolerant grasses are remarkably water conserving when coupled with efficient irrigation components.

4. Zone out. Think of a landscape in zones. Whether two, three or four zones, the concept is to design a planting plan that will protect the home. California state law actually requires 100 feet of “defensible space” around the home and suggests two zones.

The “Lean, Clean and Green Zone” lies in a 30-foot perimeter around the house. This means that all flammable material should be removed. In addition to dead plants, this also means stacks of firewood, compost piles and even plastic nursery pots. There should a 15-foot space between tree crowns and vines should not be growing on or near the walls of the house.

5. Reduce fuels. The “reduced fuel zone” is geared toward large and/or rural properties, and is 30 to 70 feet away from the structure. In this zone, dried grasses are knocked down, and trees and shrubs are spaced well apart. This zone can be broken down into smaller areas, but the point is that the closer to the house or structure, the more manicured the landscape should be.

6. Beware of ladders. “Ladder fuel” is vegetation that acts as a link between the ground and treetops (or the roof of the house). Clear shrubs from the bases of trees and away from the house. Also, prune any low-growing tree branches, especially if they are within 30 feet of the structure. Limbs should be pruned 6 to 15 feet from the ground.

7. Plant sense. While there are no fireproof plants, some are more combustible than others. For example, in general, deciduous trees are more fire-safe than conifers. Some plants are actually termed “pyrophytic.” These plants usually are high in oils and tend toward twiggy growth. They may have loose, papery bark or fine, feathery leaves. Examples include manzanita and junipers. In fact, firefighters have been known to call junipers “gasoline plants.”

Cactus and succulents are an obvious choice as fire-resistant plants, as they have high water content in their leaves. Other suggested plants include dwarf ceanothus, yarrow, rock roses, creeping rosemary, lavender, santolina, alyssum and salvia. And a healthy stand of turfgrass might be the best of all!

8. Space out. Plant placement is as or more important than plant selection. Landscapes tend to be crowded, often being planted for early impact and then degenerating into tangled masses of plants. Keep the mature size of the tree or shrub in mind. Keep plants spaced.

You can also integrate hardscape elements in between plants to create a beautiful landscape. Think flagstone, gravel, decomposed granite, rock walls and other non-flammable elements. These all increase fire safety while adding beauty (and reducing water use!).

9. Skip the sparks. When performing any clearing, be sure that your equipment is in good condition and keep an eye out for sparks. It’s suggested that equipment be used only before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. to avoid winds. Have a water source handy.

10. Triangles and triage. You probably know about the “disease triangle” when it comes to turf problems. You need a host, pathogen and environment. There is also a “fire triangle.” The three sides of the triangle are heat, oxygen, and fuel – take away any one of them and fire won’t be a problem. While you don’t have control over heat and oxygen, you can help suppress wildfires by curtailing or eliminating the fuel.

In rural areas, firefighters often use a triage method to protect homes. If a structure considered indefensible due to heavily vegetated slopes or overgrown trees and shrubs might impair access, it can be passed by to save a more accessible building.

No structure or landscape can be completely fireproofed, but by reducing fuel loads, you and your clients will have at least a fighting chance against the flames.