In California, forest fires are increasingly frequent and destructive. Fires have always been a part of California ecology, but as communities grow and move further into areas that were previously wasteland, fires have become more destructive to homes.
Three ways fire can burn
First of all, it is important to understand how a house burns down due to a forest fire. There are three ways a forest fire can burn down a house.
- Direct contact with flames
- Embers from a fire, even a mile away, can move around and get into the nooks and crannies of the house and start a fire. Due to the notorious winds typically associated with fires in California, 60% of home fires are caused by embers.
- Radiant heat. Even without direct contact with the flames, if a structure becomes hot enough, it can ignite.
In order to protect your home, you need to understand each of these causes and use strategies that can deter each of these types of fires.
To create a defensible space is your home’s first line of defense.
This is a space that you create by planning for planting, pruning, and tree removal, so that fire is less likely to reach your home. It is also important to make room for a fire truck to get to your property to fight the fire.
The defensible zone can be broken down into three zones, from the house to the outside.
- Zone 1: 0-5 feet is a non-combustible zone. In this area, non-combustible materials should be used for mulch, fences and decks. There should be no vegetation in this area. Use gravel, rock or decomposed granite in place of wood mulch.
- Zone 2: 5-30 feet is the lean and clean zone. In this area, islands of vegetation are created where the plants are mowed and irrigated. Separate groups of plants (or islands) with bridges of non-combustible material – so the fire cannot move from plant to plant. The tops of the trees must not touch each other. The vegetation is thinned and pruned. Branches or lower trees are removed so that the fire cannot spread from the ground to the tree.
- Zone 3: 30-100 feet is the reduced fuel zone. Reduce the density of vegetation to slow the spread of fire. Trees and shrubs should be well spaced and pruned to eliminate fuel ladders where fire can climb from the ground to the top of the vegetation.
Knowing where your home is most vulnerable to fire allows you to prioritize actions you can take to protect your home. It doesn’t matter if you live on the border between the wildlands and an urban area, or completely live in an urban area far from the wildlands, there are some pretty simple things you can do to help protect your home.
- Create and maintain this defensible zone around you.
- Clean the litter from the gutters
- Replace the vents in the gables and attic with 1/8 ” mesh screen. There are also new vent designs that are better at keeping embers out.
- Prune trees so they don’t touch the roof
- Prune trees so that their canopies do not overlap
- Replace the section of wooden fence that touches the house with a metal fence.
- Build a patio from non-flammable materials and don’t store flammable items under the patio.
- Upgrade tempered glass windows so that fire does not break the window and enter the house.
Plan your plantings in your defensible space
Many people resist creating a defensible space because they think it won’t be attractive to their home. You might be surprised at the appeal of fireproof landscaping. Many plants are considered fire resistant. That doesn’t mean they won’t burn, but their foliage and stems won’t easily ignite and contribute significantly to the fuel source. According to Firefree.org, Fire-resistant plants have the following characteristics:
• The leaves are moist and flexible.
• Plants have little deadwood and tend not to accumulate dry, dead material inside the plant.
• The sap looks like water and does not have a strong odor.
• The sap or resin materials are weak
Some plants considered to be fire resistant are: Ajuga varieties (bugleweed), Dianthus species
Lamium, Sedum, thyme, or sempervivum spp., yarrow, Armeria, Bergenia, Coreopsis,
Echinacea, hedge flower, sunrose, coralbells, daylily, red hot poker, bearded iris, monkey flower, CA redbud.
Los Angeles and San Diego counties both have brochures listing fire-resistant plants, but be aware that not all listed species will do as well in our Central Valley. If you can find the plants at a local nursery, it suits our area, or check with master gardeners!
Consider the native California plants
“Native species are generally fire-adapted, which means their tops can burn in a fire, but the roots develop to such an extent that they are the first to regenerate after a fire,” says Jeff Burns, a Colorado forester. National Forest Service. Another advantage of using plants native to your area is that they are generally very drought tolerant.
While all plants will most certainly burn in a forest fire, well-watered green plants will resist fire better. Selecting less “messy” plants will add to your defensible space. The needles and leaves littering the ground are a good source of fuel for the fire. Remove dead wood from your trees and garden.
Taking a few steps to create a fire-proof landscape and making a few changes in your home can go a long way in protecting your home from fires.
The Master Gardeners will be available to answer your questions at a few selected locations over the coming months!
Ace Hardware, Visalia – 1st Sat / monthly, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Luis nursery, Visalia – 2nd Sat / month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Hanford Farmers Market – 4e Thursday, May – September, 5-8 p.m., 7th St. and Irwin Downtown Hanford
Tulare County Master Gardeners: (559) 684-3325, Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30 am-11:30am