Firewise Your Landscape

Malibu FireWith forest fires currently raging in Colorado and New Mexico and as we enter our own fire season, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine the use of plants and landscaping techniques to help create a fire-resistant barrier around your home.

Unfortunately, fires do happen, but as any number of fire authorities can attest, including the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Orange County Fire Authority, and the San Diego County Land Use and Environment Department, there are a number of things you can do to help protect your home. Two additional sources of information on the subject are the Firewise Web site, created by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group (a resource for much of this material), and the State of California Web site.

Guide To Landscaping

The primary goal for Firewise landscaping is fuel reduction — limiting the level of flammable vegetation and materials surrounding the home and increasing the moisture content of remaining vegetation. This includes the entire 'home ignition zone' which extends up to 200 feet in high hazard areas.

Use the Zone Concept

Zone 1 is the 30 feet adjacent to the home and its attachments; Zone 2 is 30 to 100 feet from the home; Zone 3 is 100 to 200 feet from the home.

Fire Zones

Zone 1 (All Hazard Areas)

This well-irrigated area encircles the structure and all its attachments (wooden decks, fences, and boardwalks) for at least 30 feet on all sides.

  1. Plants should be carefully spaced, low-growing and free of resins, oils and waxes that burn easily.
  2. Mow the lawn regularly. Prune trees up six to ten feet from the ground.
  3. Space conifer trees 30 feet between crowns. Trim back trees that overhang the house.
  4. Create a 'fire-free' area within five feet of the home, using non-flammable landscaping materials and/or high-moisture-content annuals and perennials.
  5. Remove dead vegetation from under deck and within 10 feet of house.
  6. Consider fire-resistant material for patio furniture, swing sets, etc.
  7. Firewood stacks and propane tanks should NOT be located in this zone.
  8. Water plants, trees and mulch regularly.
  9. Consider xeriscaping if watering is restricted by water-use restrictions.

Zone 2 (Moderate and High Hazard Areas)

Plants in this zone should be low-growing, well irrigated, and less flammable.

  1. Leave 30 feet between clusters of two to three trees, or 20 feet between individual trees.
  2. Encourage a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees.
  3. Create 'fuel breaks', like driveways, gravel walkways and lawns.
  4. Prune trees up six to ten feet from the ground.

Zone 3 (High Hazard Areas)

Thin this area, although less space is required than in Zone 2. Remove smaller conifers that are growing between taller trees. Remove heavy accumulation of woody debris. Reduce the density of tall trees so canopies are not touching.

Maintaining the Firewise Landscape

  • Keep trees and shrubs pruned six to ten feet from the ground.
  • Remove leaf clutter and dead and overhanging branches.
  • Mow the lawn regularly and dispose of cutting and debris promptly.
  • Store firewood away from the house.
  • Maintain the irrigation system regularly.
  • Familiarize yourself with local regulations regarding vegetative clearance, debris disposal, and fire safety requirements for equipment.

Fire-Resistant California Friendly Plants

There is no such thing as a fireproof plant. There are some plants that can retain moisture, even in dry areas, and are called fire resistant. This list is designed to identify some Californian native plants that are fire resistant and have wildlife value.

The purpose of this list is to help place fire resistant and wildlife important plants in areas where brush clearance can leave an area barren and subject to soil erosion.

Ground Covers

  • Atriplex barclayana. Beach Carpet Saltbush. A low growing form of saltbush (6" high, spreading). This saltbush provides good ground cover for soil erosion and provides seeds, salt and cover for wildlife.
  • Atriplex canescens. Four-wing Saltbush. A low growing form of saltbush (1-2' high, 3' wide) that happily grows in the desert. It provides seeds, salt and cover for wildlife.
  • Baccharis piluaris "Pigeon Point". Dwarf Coyote Bush. While not a "showy" plant, it does produce some flowers and has a deep root system, that provides good erosion control. It grows 12" to 18" in height.  It adds cover and seeds for a variety of birds. (LA County Fire approved)
  • Monardella linoides viminea. Willowy Coyote Mint.  This federally protected coyote mint grows up to 18" tall and prefers North facing (somewhat shaded) or riparian areas. It has a long blooming cycle, flowering through the summer and fall and is an attractant to hummingbirds and butterflies. Songbirds also eat the seeds.

Shrubs

  • Atriplex lentiformis breweri. Quail Bush. A larger saltbush (4' high, 6-8' wide) that provides critical habitat for the California quail and other birds.
  • Galvezia speciosa. Island Bush Snapdragon. This CNPS "rare" plant is from the Channel Islands and stays evergreen year round producing trumpet shape red flowers favored by hummingbirds. It grows in 18" to 24" in height and 3' to 5' in width. It also adds excellent cover for wildlife.
  • Isomeris arborea. Bladderpod. A very drought tolerant shrub that forms yellow flowers and seedpods. (LA County Fire approved)
  • Mahonia nevinii (aka Berberis nevinii). Nevin's Barberry. A federally endangered species, once common in the Verdugo Mountains, grows berries that are favored by many songbirds. The spiny leaves also add a protective cover. The shrub can grow up to 4' in height and 6' in width and is evergreen. (LA County Fire approved)
  • Mahonia, Aquifolium and all subspecies. Mahonia/Barberry. It's purple berries and yellow flowers are favored by many songbirds. The spiny leaves also add a protective cover. (LA County Fire approved)
  • Rhus laurina (aka Malosma laurina). Laurel Sumac. While laurel sumac does have a high oil content, it has found to have a much higher incineration point than most other plants. It has been found to be one of the last plants to burn in fires. It provides important cover, food and nesting resource for many types of wildlife. A laurel sumac that has the lower third of it's branches pruned is considered fire-safe. It is a favorite shrub amongst warbler.
  • Mimulus sp. "Big Tujunga" or "La Tuna". Monkeyflower (local varieties). These two local varieties of Monkeyflower do well in the summer heat and provide pale to deep orange flowers. It grows 18" to 36" in height and 3' to 5' in width. The flowers and seeds provide wildlife value.
  • Ribes aureum. Golden Currant. This currant grows upright to 6' and is lacy in structure. In summers, it can go semi-drought deciduous, though with some water in will remain evergreen. It's berries offer a high wildlife value. (LA County Fire approved)
  • Rhus integrifolia. Lemonade Berry. A very drought-resistant shrub that provides cover and food to wildlife. California Thrasher uses it's fruit and leaf material for nesting. It also is an excellent erosion control plant.
  • Symphoricarpos albus. Common Snowberry. While not the favorite berry choice of most wildlife, it still gets eaten. Its root system is vigorous and deep enough to hold most banks. Snowberry has been seen on North-facing slopes in the full sun, though shaded areas such as under oaks is best

Trees

  • Heteromeles arbutifolia. Toyon. This small tree is found readily in La Tuna Canyon. It is very drought tolerant and provides red berry for months that are a favorite amongst many birds found in the area.
  • Quercus agrifolia. Coastal Live Oak. Oak trees are important wildlife resources and have actually been found to suppress fire.

Resources:

Garden Consultation

If you're interested in Firewise Landscaping and would like to set up a phone consultation or arrange a site inspection, now is the time to give a call (323-461-6556) or email me. In addition to my work as a landscape designer and contractor, I love giving advice and have provided garden consultations to any number of folks with great results.

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Fire-Resistant Plants

California Poppy

Coast Live Oak

The Coast Live Oak is exceptionally fire resistant, more so than other California oak species. It typically has a much-branched trunk and reaches a mature height of 10–25 meters. Some specimens may attain an age exceeding 250 years, with trunk diameters up to three or four meters.

It is the only California native oak that actually thrives in the coastal environment, although it is rare on the immediate shore; it enjoys the mild winter and summer climate afforded by ocean proximity, and it is somewhat tolerant of aerosol-borne sea salt. The coastal fog supplies relief from the rainless California summer heat.

It has also become a common staple to western landscape design. It, however, is sensitive to changes in grading and drainage; in particular, it is important to respect the root crown level and avoid adding soil near the trunk when construction or landscaping occurs.

Also, if you intend to incorporate the tree into a landscaping design that uses artificial irrigation, it is important to avoid regular watering within the oak's drip line (canopy), since wet soil in the summer increases infection rates by soil-borne Phytophthora diseases.

At least twelve distinct cultures of Native Americans are known to have consumed the acorns as a dietary staple. In the 18th century Spaniards in the San Fernando Valley used the wood for charcoal to fire kilns in making adobe. Later this form of charcoal would be utilized in the baking, gunpowder and electric power industries.

Island Bush Snapdragon

Island Bush-Snapdragon

With its bright red flowers and lime green foliage, Galvezia speciosa (Island Bush-Snapdragon) is one of the happiest plants in the landscape. Galvezia likes full sun or part shade, and since it is native on California's channel islands, will not tolerate severe frost

It is a woody perennial that mounds up to about three feet in height and spreads to about five feet. On a slope, it will sprawl out and stay lower.

Galvezia is ideally suited for pots or hanging baskets. It grows fast and takes any kind of pruning (for shaping) and will not require much maintenance.

It blooms spring, summer and fall, most prolifically in the spring. The tubular shaped flowers make it a hummingbird's favorite!

Resources

For more information, please check out Tree Of Life Nursery, which is a resource for this material and Wikipedia.

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