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Tips: Monthly Fire-smart Reminders

Feeling overwhelmed and need a place to start? Check out our monthly tips for actionable, affordable ways to reduce fuel on your property. Our fire-smart landscaping tips are a reminder to homeowners to plan and maintain their homes and landscapes with awareness of the threat of wildfires. Read on for this month's fire-smart tip!

 

JANUARY: Pruning and Thinning for Fire Safety

Photo: Richard Ackley
Photo: Richard Ackley

Winter is a great season to focus on pruning while trees are dormant (except apricot and cherry). When pruning for fire safety, prioritize Zone 0 (0-5 feet from home) and Zone 1 (5-30 feet from home). 

Prune to remove dead and dying branches

Dead and dying branches are highly flammable and pose a hazard. Prune them regularly to prevent them from accumulating and creating fuel ladders that can carry fire to the crowns of trees.

Prune and thin to increase space between trees and shrubs

Thinning out dense areas of shrubs and trees reduces the amount of continuous fuel for fire. Proper spacing helps prevent fire from spreading quickly and creates defensible space for firefighters. For more information about spacing, see our November tips: Plant Spacing in a Fire-Smart Landscape.

Additional tips:

  • Avoid topping trees as this weakens their structure and encourages dense, twiggy growth that is highly flammable
  • Remove branches within 10 feet of your chimney
  • Consider removing branches that overhang your roof to minimize plant debris, but not to the detriment of the tree’s health
  • For more information about healthy pruning techniques, click here

Remember, fire-smart pruning is an ongoing process. Regularly monitor your landscape and prune as needed to maintain defensible space around your home.

 

FEBRUARY: Trees and Shrubs - Consider spacing

FIRESafe Marin

  • Consider creating separation by increasing spacing between tree canopies while considering flat vs sloped terrain.
  • Maintain vertical clearance of at least 3X the shrub’s height between the tops of shrubs and the bottom of the tree canopy. This can be done by pruning the shrub down, or pruning smaller, easily ignitable tree branches up, or both.
  • Remove dead trees.
  • Plant spacing, size control and maintenance are more important than type of plant.


MARCH: Remove and replace invasive plants

Photo: Marin Master Gardeners
Photo: Marin Master Gardeners

  • Remove invasive plants such as ivy, broom, and pampas grass that spread quickly, add considerable fuel for fire and use precious water. 
  • Replace with California natives, pollinator or low water use plants keeping drought tolerance and biodiversity in mind. 
  • Unfortunately, excessive clearing can create a vulnerable entry point for the plants we do not want. Pull weeds before they go to seed to keep them from spreading.

APRIL: It’s spring! Assess the Fire Risk to Your Property and Think Lean, Clean and Green

The small tree to the right may have to be moved as it might be too close to the house. Photo: Plant Master
The small tree to the right may have to be moved as it might be too close to the house. Photo: Plant Master


  • Lean: Allow space between individual plants, or plant in small, irregular clusters or islands with non-combustible material pathways.
  • Clean: Remove dried grass, weeds, dead branches, and all other dead vegetation. Check gutters, roof, eaves, vents, chimneys, under decks or elevated porches for leaf and needle litter. Thin and reduce interior and exterior tree canopies.
  • Green: Properly irrigated plants with healthy soil remain healthy, green, and less prone to fire, summer through fall.  Check your irrigation system regularly for leaks or malfunctions. Applying compost and mulches help stabilize soil temperature and prevent evaporation. Areas 0-5’ from structures, use non-combustible mulches like rock, gravel, and stone. 5-30” from structures, composted woodchips or bark nuggets to a depth of two inches is best. Avoid fine, stringy mulches.

 

MAY: Maintain Plants Along Exit Routes From Your Home

Photo: Fay Mark
Photo: Fay Mark

  • Identify the best escape routes to get to your vehicle and then for your vehicle to leave your property. Routes with less vegetation are safer.
  • Assess the health and condition of the plants along each route. Keep vegetation maintained – pruned and hydrated.
  • Remove or move combustible materials from your exits e.g., jute door mats, wood planters, furniture etc.
  • Remove dead plant material and debris.
  • Remove vines near doors or windows.
  • Replace wood gates, arbors, or trellises near exit routes with metal.
  • Have evacuation signs ready to post at home exits in the event you must evacuate. This alerts fire personnel that you have left the property. (Check with your local fire department for signs.)
 

JUNE: Clean up Zone Zero - Within 5 Feet of Your Home

June

  • Clean-up areas where wind eddies deposit leaf and plant litter along the perimeter of your home. 
  • Clear dead debris from flower beds close to the home.
  • Rake up wood mulch within 5 feet of the home and move it to another location in your garden.
  • Trim dead, damaged and diseased branches and dispose of the material in your green waste bin.
  • Move common combustible fire hazards away from the area immediately surrounding your home including brooms, rakes, plastic waste bins, wood furniture, furniture cushions, wood piles, and natural fiber door mats. Move these items as far away from your house as possible – or indoors if a nearby wildfire threatens.
 

JULY: Mindfully Mulch

Photo: Saxon Holt
Photo: Saxon Holt

  • Mulch: material spread over the surface of the soil to help reduce water evaporation, add organic material to soil, suppress weeds, reduce erosion and compaction and help maintain a more even soil temperature and health.
  • 0 feet to 5 feet from your house: non-combustible mulch such as stone, rock, pavers, decomposed granite, or gravel. 
  • 5 feet to 30 feet from your home: composted wood chips are considered the best choice for residential landscapes. Limit mulch depth to two inches. Separate wood chip areas with non-combustible  hardscaping materials to slow fire. 
  • 30 feet and beyond from your home: larger, composted or non-composted wood chips or bark nuggets up to a depth of 3 inches. 
  • Hazardous mulches to avoid: shredded western red cedar (gorilla hair) or pine needles. Do not use any fine, stringy mulches, they burn faster than larger chunks.
 

AUGUST:  Water Wise Strategies

August FSL

Use these important fire-smart & water-wise landscaping strategies:

  • Help your soil maintain moisture by using compost and appropriate fire-smart mulches.
  • Avoid planting new plants during the hot summer months. They need more water to establish themselves and thrive.
  • Learn how much water your plants need and give them the right amount. This will help keep your plants healthy and happy.
  • Water your plants in the early morning, applying water to the base of the plant within its dripline.
  • OVER IRRIGATION IS COMMON. Consider using flow meters, soaker hoses, drip irrigation, and irrigation controllers for more efficient administration and monitoring.
  • Use fertilizers sparingly. They make plants grow quickly and require more water to support new growth.
  • Remove invasive plants and weeds which take water from other pants. Reduce the size of your thirsty lawn.
  • On days with Red Flag warnings, avoid changing your irrigation schedule or using more water. Using excessive water for irrigation reduces the water available to our fire personnel.
  • Watch this video to learn how to prioritize your plants to conserve water for landscaping.
 

SEPTEMBER: Maintaining a Fire-smart Landscape

Photo: Benti Kaur
Photo: Benti Kaur

  • Continuously clear dead leaves, branches, and debris from around your home, especially from your roof and gutters.
  • Maintain a clearance of 10 feet between tree limbs and your chimney, and 5 feet from the rest of the home.
  • Regularly prune trees and shrubs to remove dead branches and increase space in tree canopies to reduce flammable fuel.
  • Remove low-hanging branches from trees to create space between lower vegetation to reduce the risk of fire ladders. 
  • Keep vegetation from overhanging or touching power lines.
  • Remove any dead vegetation and dry grasses from the landscape to reduce potential fuel.
  • Regularly inspect plants for drought stress and water appropriately to keep plants healthy.
 

OCTOBER: Fire-smart Plant Considerations

Photo: Ben Iwara
Photo: Ben Iwara

There are no fire-resistant plants since all plants can burn. But there are aspects to consider when selecting plants to include in your fire-smart landscape. Plant spacing, size, and maintenance are important considerations.

Consider:

  • Plants that have a higher moisture content, lower resin or sap content, and less volatile oils.
  • Low-growing plants and plants that don’t produce excessive amounts of dry, combustible vegetation that can act as fuel for fires.
  • California native plants that are well adapted to your climate and ecosystem which will be more likely to thrive without excessive watering and maintenance, reducing fire risk.
  • Horizontal and vertical spacing between plants and hardscape features that separate plant groupings to break up the path of fire.

Avoid plants that:

  • Tend to build up dead thatch inside or under a green surface layer.
  • Produce and shed excessive dead, dry, or fine debris.
  • Create fire ladders such as vines or shrubs that grow beneath trees and create vertical pathways for fire to climb.
  • Are Invasive.

 

NOVEMBER: Plant Spacing in a Fire-smart Landscape

FIRESafe Marin

When considering plant spacing, you need to be mindful of how close the plants are to structures, the mature size of the plants, the steepness of slopes, and the vertical and horizontal spacing of plants. 

Horizontal spacing:

  • It is ideal to remove all plants within 5 feet of structures.
  • Plant density can increase the further away from structures you get.
  • Separate groups of plants with hardscaping to help slow down or prevent the spread of fire.
  • On a mild slope (0-20% slope), space trees at least 10 feet apart from their dripline and space shrubs 2x their height from each other.
  • On a medium slope (20-40%), space trees at least 20 feet apart and shrubs 4x their height.
  • On a steep slope (over 40%), space trees at least 30 feet apart and shrubs 6x their height.
  • Avoid planting trees in rows or hedges.

Vertical spacing:

  • Remove tree branches that are within 6 feet from the ground on trees that are 18 feet or taller.
  • If shrubs are under a tree, maintain a vertical clearance of 3x the shrub’s height between the top of the shrub to the lowest branch of the tree. 
  • When creating vertical space under trees, prioritize the tree's health by ensuring that the upper two-thirds of the tree has branches.
 

DECEMBER: Planning Your 3 Defensible Zones for Fire Safety

These zones make up the 100' of defensible space required by law. FIRESafe Marin
These zones make up the 100' of defensible space required by law. FIRESafe Marin

When planning your fire-smart landscape, start from the home and work your way out. The first 5 feet from your home is the most critical area. 

Zone 0 – 0 to 5 feet from the house
Objective: create a fire-resistant barrier around any buildings by minimizing combustible materials.

  • Use non-combustible mulch and hardscaping such as concrete, brick, rocks, decomposed granite, and gravel
  • Avoid planting near windows

Zone 1 – 5 to 30 feet from the house
Objective: Reduce heat and movement of flame by creating a “lean and clean” environment.

  • Allow for ample plant spacing to slow the spread of flames
  • Plant low-growing and well-irrigated plants closer to the home and larger shrubs and trees further away
  • Break up mulched areas with hardscaping

Zone 2 – 30 to 100 feet from the house
Objective: Decrease the energy and speed of a fire by eliminating plant density.

  • Allow ample plant spacing both vertically and horizontally to slow down the spread of fire
  • You may need to collaborate with your neighbors to plan out this defensible zone