How to protect your home from fire via landscaping changes

It’s a struggle: we love our gardens, but we know that some of that lush landscaping can endanger our homes and neighborhoods during the forest fire season.

While nothing can prevent a house from burning if a fire is severe enough, you can now take steps to minimize a fire, not bring it to your front door, and at least not add fuel to the conflagration.

The Bay Area Newspaper Group recently hosted a webinar with Doug Mosher of Oakland Community Preparedness and Response and Marilyn Saarni, a Contra Costa Master Gardener and Rescape Qualified Professional, who discussed steps to protect and prepare for a forest fire season that are both cyclical shining and running.

The good news, say Mosher and Saarni, is that you don’t have to do everything at once. Break it up into manageable sections and do what you can.

Here are the highlights of the session and answers to some of the questions asked. Watch the full webinar here.

The zones

Fire safety officers have identified zones where homeowners living in areas of high fire risk are required to provide 30 meters of defensible space around their homes. But Mosher and Saarni say it is reasonable advice for all Bay Area residents. Think of it like this:

Zone 0, the ember-resistant zone, extends 1.5 m from your house. This area requires the strictest reduction in fuel consumption in forest fires. This is to prevent embers that reach far before the flames from igniting and setting fire to materials next to your house.

Zone 1 is the “slim, clean and green zone” that extends over 9 m.

And Zone 2, which is 9 to 30 meters from buildings, structures and decks – or up to your property line – is the “fuel cut zone”.

Zone 0 considerations

For Zone 0, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection recommends the use of hardscape, including gravel, cobblestones, concrete, and non-combustible mulch materials. Bark mulch should not be included in this area.

Q. Which mulch is best for protection?

A. Mulch is defined as anything that covers the ground. Organic or natural mulch may be best for your garden as it will nourish your soil when it is broken down, but stones and other non-combustible mulch serve other purposes, including maintaining soil moisture and preventing weed growth.

You can use compost as a mulching substitute as long as it doesn’t contain a lot of large wood chips.

Shredded redwood, also called gorilla hair, and cedar bark are highly flammable and should not be used.

When looking at Zone 0, you are removing dead and dying weeds, grass, plants, shrubs, trees, branches, and plant debris, including leaves, needles, cones, and bark.

Check your roof, gutters, patios, porches and stairs for dirt and cut off branches up to 10 feet from your chimney.

Plants should be limited to low-growing, non-woody options that are properly watered and cared for.

Q. But I thought I should reduce water use during the drought …

A. Focus your irrigation allotment on this zone and your trees.

Zone 1 considerations

If you have flammable patio furniture or planters on your deck, reduce the number from several to a few. Firewood or stored wood should be transported in Zone 2.

Replacing wooden fences, gates, and arbors with non-flammable alternatives will also help protect your home, as will removing hedges and tall trees near your home that can direct the fire right outside your front door.

Boats and RVs should also be removed from Zone 1.

Q. Which plants are good for growing in this area and which should we avoid?

A. All plants burn when a fire is hot enough, but there are plants that ignite more slowly.

The “do not grow” list includes pine, juniper, palm that is not regularly cleaned of dry fronds, hemlock, California Bay, cypress, eucalyptus, manzanita, coyote brush, pampas grass, tan oak, black sage and rosemary.

Recommended plants include aloe, bush anemone, California poppy, California red bud, common lippia, coreopsis, coton, creeping thyme, fuchsia, lamb’s ear, lantana, lavender, lilac, monkey flower, and ornamental strawberry.

Approved trees are ash, beech, citrus, elm, ironwood, maple and oak.

Other recommended plants are rhododendron, rockrose, sage, common garlic, yarrow, yellow ice plant and yerba buena.

Look for plants that are usually high in moisture, have larger leaves, and grow deeper into the soil. Their leaves and stems contain less sap and resin, which makes them burn more slowly. Deciduous trees, which lose their leaves every fall, are generally more fire resistant than evergreen trees.

Zone 2 considerations

For Zone 2, keep your lawn and annual grasses a maximum of 4 inches tall, and create horizontal and vertical space between shrubs and trees to reduce the chance of fire spreading from one to the other.

Exposed wooden posts must have a minimum distance of 3 m in all directions, ie up to the bare ground.

Q. Isn’t it good for oaks and other trees to leave the fallen leaves underneath?

A. Yes, this is the recommended practice for oak and some other trees, but in our dry climates, leaf litter can be extremely flammable. You can leave some of this – up to 3 inches deep – in Zone 2, but not in Zones 0 and 1.

Just as important as what you plant is how you plant it. To prevent forest fires from spreading, plant in small groups instead of large ones, leaving free spaces between them.

Fire moves uphill faster than flat surfaces, so it is important to keep tree heights down by pruning or planting smaller species of trees in this area.

Maintaining your garden, pruning dead wood, pulling weeds and tidying up the plants are also important factors in protecting against forest fires.

Q. Where can I get more information about fire safety and emergency preparedness?

A. Your Fire Prevention District can help, and Oakland Community Preparedness and Response has more than a dozen emergency preparedness guides, hardscaping tips, and plant guides at www.oaklandcpandr.org/guides.

To see if you live in a high risk forest fire area, check out the maps at the State Fire Marshal’s California office, osfm.fire.ca.gov.

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