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Marin IJ Articles

Make your landscape fire-safe

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • Probably one of the biggest threats to our beautiful county is the danger of brush fires and wildfires in the chaparral-covered hills surrounding the homes in which many of us live. To live sustainably here means protecting yourself, your family and your property from risk, while also protecting natural habitat.

    There is no such thing as a plant that will not burn. Given enough heat and favorable conditions for combustion, any plant can burn. We can, however, improve the fire safety of our property by properly designing and maintaining our landscape. To create a safe and defensible space, you may need to remove or move vegetation around your home, or both.

    Spring is a good time to assess which plants in your landscape are too close to structures, too close to each other or are too flammable. If plants may increase the chances of your home becoming a fire statistic, remove them sooner rather than later.

    What makes plants highly flammable?

    • They retain large amounts of dead material within the plant.

    • They produce a large volume of litter-like twigs, needles and leaves, and may have loose, shedding or papery bark.

    • They contain volatile substances such as oils, resins, wax or pitch.

    • They are dry. This is always an issue in our dry summer climate, but is especially a threat in prolonged drought when plants are stressed and drier than normal.

    The obvious offenders in our area are rampant bamboo, pampas grass, unmaintained palms, acacias, eucalyptus, rosemary and juniper. The importance of removing these plants is heightened by their ability to rapidly increase in the chaparral. Removal of bamboo, pampas grass, Scotch broom and other woody weed invaders require persistence and vigilance. The UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website has good advice on how best to do it by offering mechanical, cultural, biological and chemical options. Go to: ipm.ucdavis.edu then click on the link to “Homes, Gardens, Landscapes and Turf” and then “Woody Weed Invaders.”

    You can improve the fire safety of your property by making sure there is both horizontal and vertical separation between plants, and by choosing fire-resistant plants. If a wildfire occurs, this will minimize the spread of fire between your plants, and from your plants to your home. Remember that all plants will burn under the right conditions. Make sure plants are properly irrigated. Regularly remove dead leaves, branches and other flammable debris. Fire-safe landscapes should also include hardscape, such as granite paths and stone walls that can serve as a fuel break and help to slow down or change the direction of a fire.

    When choosing what to plant or what to keep as you assess your landscape for fire resistance consider the characteristics of fire-resistant plants:

    • They store water in leaves and stems.

    • They produce little dead or fine material.

    • They maintain high moisture content with limited watering. The moisture content of plants is an important consideration because high levels of plant moisture can lower fire risk and decrease the heat of the fire.

    • They tend to grow slowly and need little maintenance.

    • They contain low levels of volatile oils or resins.

    • They have an open, loose branching habit with a low volume of total vegetation and little dead wood.

    • Their leaves are moist and supple.

    • Their sap is waterlike.

    Most deciduous trees and shrubs are fire-resistant. Turf lawns, low-growing shrubs and annuals that are regularly watered are good choices around buildings. This is a balancing act with our prolonged drought. Succulents are good choices. Plant a fruit or citrus trees or a veggie garden. You get the fire resistance and great organic produce.