Note To Self: Tweak Landscape To Make It More Fire Safe

Like most Sonoma residents fortunate enough to survive the Oct 2017 fires with an intact home and an unburnt landscape, I’m re-evaluating my landscape. Before the fires I assumed that I’m safer here in town. But now it is clear that with enough wind and fuel a fire storm can devastate everything in its path – sometimes in a matter of minutes. The fire storm doesn’t care whether it consumes a forest, a rural property, or a densely populated neighborhood. My heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones and property in this disaster.

“Reducing Wildfire Risk” by State Farm via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

I highly advise that all of us in fire prone Northern California read the following sources.

  1. Cal Fire, as you would expect, has an excellent web site that includes a section that explains defensible space and fire safe landscaping. Their graphics about vertical and horizontal spacing of trees and shrubs (including variations for different slopes) are very informative. They also have a colorful, 48-page, fire safe plant list.
  2. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has an excellent 5-page article on Fire Resistant Landscaping by Suzanne Schettler. Schettler addresses the flammability of various plants, plant separation options such as planting islands, and also horticultural practices that keep your property more fire safe.
  3. Once you’ve read through Cal Fire and CNPS’s information you’ll be ready to re-evaluate your landscape layout and choose whether to prune, trim, add or remove certain plants. What I like about FireSafe Marin’s website is their extensive and somewhat interactive list of safe plants. They have great photos, links to descriptions, and sorting by plant type (tree, shrub, ground-cover, etc.). They also have a table of fire-prone plants which can be very helpful if you are trying to assess whether to remove a plant. Please look at this fire-prone plant list and take action to make your landscape safer.

Even if we have good horticultural practices, keep our gardens well maintained, and understand fire-safe landscaping it is easy to get too busy and overlook planting scenarios that are less-fire safe than they could be. Here is what I found on my property.

  • Reconsider ceanothus espalier shrubs against house. Even though ceanothus is considered a fire safe plant do I want any plant 7’ tall against the house? I chose to trim them back to 5’, thinned them out and will re-assess whether to remove them completely this winter.
  • Create a wider horizontal separation zone between Southern magnolia tree and fig tree canopies. Both trees are vigorous and within just a few years of growth their canopies nearly touch. To-do: Prune back canopy to create 10’ of air space as Cal Fire recommends.
  • Increase vertical and horizontal separation of screening shrubs from Magnolia tree. I have some ceanothus shrubs that screen out my neighbor’s yard. They are next to my magnolia and one is entangled in the tree’s lower canopy. This can create a vertical fuel ladder where a ground fire can move up into the canopy. Cal Fire recommends that the height of shrubs under trees should be no more than 1/3 the distance to the bottom of the tree’s canopy. To-do: Prune both magnolia tree and ceanothus shrub to remove fuel ladder.
  • Move firewood stack to a safe distance from house. It is currently in a side yard 5’ from the house. To-do: Move firewood 30’ from the house in what Cal Fire calls Zone 2.
  • Trim small tree in side yard that overhangs roof. How did that happen? It’s in a side yard that doesn’t get much attention. To-do: Trim back branch overhanging roof to a side node.

I hope this article inspires you to re-evaluate your landscape now to create a safer home for you, your family, and your community.

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