Simultaneously Increase Fire Safety, Beauty and Home Value
Updated October 2021. By Cassy Aoyagi: California’s fire risk is intimately connected with how we landscape – just not in the way we usually think! While our landscapes can amplify fire danger, they can also be fire-defensive, actually making our homes less receptive to fire and easier to defend.
Here are 11 steps to creating a fire-defensive property.
Start at Home
The most critical step we can take to reduce the risk of losing our homes is to “harden” them… not the landscapes that surround them.
Understanding how fire moves is critical to understanding our homes’ vulnerabilities. Wind driven embers are the most common cause of home ignitions. These home-igniters may look like swirling fire flies, or they may be more substantial – lit palm fronds can travel miles on the wind. Regardless of their size, embers do not tend to walk to our homes – they fly. Where there is no foliage to inhibit their trajectory, they can go directly to our homes.
Once embers reach our homes, they may find dry, flammable materials they can ignite to gain strength. Wood siding, shake shingles… many materials are ready to burn, unlike healthy, hydrated foliage. As hydrated objects won’t burn, embers have a harder time igniting plants.
Tip: Take action here first. Surprisingly small, inexpensive changes to existing homes can greatly reduce fire risk. There are also builders going the extra mile to create pre-hardened homes that work with a particular site’s risk profile.
Remove Invasive Plants
Several popular plants marketed as “drought tolerant” like Pampas, Feather, and Fountain grasses, and Pride of Madeira, are easily ignited. These plants travel from our gardens to wildspaces on the breeze and our hiking boots. As they are not well-adapted to our climate, they quickly dry out without supplemental water, increasing our fire danger.
Tip: Do not plant invasive plants in home or community gardens. See the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) for help removing invasives from public spaces. Visit Plant Right for lists of invasive plants and native replacements with similar aesthetics.
The same qualities that help native plants stay lush and leafy in drought serve us well in fire season. As they are well-adapted to our climate cycles, native plants tend to retain hydration through our hot, dry summers. While no plant is fire-proof, well-hydrated plants have an advantage in resisting fire. As homebuyers seek low-maintenance, low-water landscapes, planting natives also delivers dividends at sale.
Tip: Click the photo above to see a gallery of our favorites native plants. While natives will consistently maintain hydration better than non-natives, there are a few that are particularly fire resilient.
The Calscape database is a wonderful resource for getting to know native flora. Native nurseries offer both foliage and abundant know-how and educational programs. See El Nativo Growers (Wholesale/Trade), Las Pilitas Nursery, and Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery.
Space and Place Plants Carefully
All foliage needs room to grow to it’s full, mature size, particularly trees and shrubs. This action will not only increase fire safety, it will result in greater long-term design integrity and significantly reduced brush clearance and overall maintenance demands. Planting small and allowing foliage to mature in place will deliver additional benefits. Foliage will be healthier, less expensive, and appreciate in value as it grows.
Tip: Research the mature size of the foliage you intend to plant. The amount of space needed by a Coast Live Oak (82H x 35W) will be substantially bigger than that needed by a Western Redbud (20H x 20H), for example. Create a design plan to ensure foliage has room to grow. As you plant, look up and around to ensure the full sized tree or shrub will be far from structures, wires and will complement other plants.
Plant and Protect Trees
Healthy tree canopy at a safe distance from rooftops can act as catchers mitts for flying embers and shield a home. This is really lovely news, as treeful landscapes provide so many other benefits, from decreasing energy costs and increasing home value to shading outdoor spaces and attracting birds.
Tip: Native trees including Coast Live Oak, Palo Verde, and Western Redbuds are particularly beneficial and appropriate to our urban spaces. As with native plants more generally, native trees have advantages in resisting infections, diseases, and maintaining hydration in drought.
LA’s iconic palm trees greatly increase fire danger. They ignite easily, become explosive, and help fire travel. This is particularly true for those that have dried beards of fronds. Where much native foliage is protective, this is not true of LA’s native palm trees.
Tip: Avoid planting new palms. Check to see if your municipality offers incentives for removing palms. If you have a palm tree you simply can’t imagine taking down, invest in aggressive maintenance. Take great care with hydration, hand watering where necessary.
Gravel and decomposed granite paths and patios provide fire breaks and “defensible space,” space where fire-fighters can be safe from trip hazards and fire while defending your home. Beyond that, large gravelscapes and intensely hardscaped areas create free-space for embers to fly, bounce and roll toward homes, where they can collect and build heat to ignite. This is more dangerous than having low, well-hydrated foliage that may stop ember travel.
Tip: Maintain or plant low-growing, ideally native, foliage rather than gravel or hardscaping large areas. In addition to increasing your safety, it will save energy and therefore save money!
Well-hydrated objects do not burn. This includes both foliage and homes. Smart irrigation paired with mulching is a great way to ensure foliage and the soil itself maintains hydration through LA’s hot and dry months.
Australians in fire-prone regions have tested rooftop sprinkling systems that, likewise, make homes too wet to burn. We are starting to see these systems marketed here as well.
Clean and Store
Keeping your landscape tidy and healthy helps your home resist fire. Debris, dry weeds, dead plants, cushions and curtains, even un-stored tools and furniture become places where embers can catch and build heat capable of home ignition. This can happen at foundations, windowsills and in gutters – everywhere. Knowing firewise landscape maintenance practices protect and improves home value definitely makes it easier to whistle while you work!
Tip: Readily accessible storage for flammable objects, for example, in-furniture storage for cushions, reduces these dangers and increases the likelihood that items will often be stored when not in active use. Here, your investment in native plants will save time and reduce waste, as they tend to produce less litter.
Inspire Your Community
Particularly at the Urban Wildland Interface, public property impacts the safety of our private property. It is in our best interests to work together to reduce this danger. Communities that come together to reshape common ground, removing invasives, and stabilizing slopes (like Sunland, La Crescenta, and Sierra Madre) increase their luck and resilience.
Tip: Resilience hubs and Fire Safe Councils, supported by fire agencies, are great places to start and have incredible impacts. Other possible steps include encouraging local nurseries to carry more natives and to cease offering invasive foliage. Evaluate the condition of nearby open and vacant spaces. If you see problems, bring community together to improve the space.
Develop Outside Fire Paths
While we’ve long thought locating within a city would protects us, the impact of recent fires on Santa Rosa and Paradise show the limits of that protection. The fact is that we have built communities within known fire pathways. Those homes are simply in greater danger than those located in areas that burn less frequently.
Tip: As we work to create more housing, policy makers, planners and developers must consider fire-safety as a criteria for assessing and locating new developments. As citizens, we can encourage them to do so.
Examples of fire wise landscapes can be seen at LAFD Station 74, the Sunland Welcome Nature Garden, the Fire Station Garden in the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall, the Rosemont Preserve, and the Fire Wise demonstration garden at Theodore Payne Foundation.
- See Our Firewise Playlist in Youtube
- Take Action When Fires Are Near
- Firewise Landscape Maintenance Practices
- CalFire: Home Hardening Tips
- Expect Resilience Post-Fire
- Prepare for Debris Flow
- Fight Fire with Smart Design
- Are You a Fire Fighter?
- Disaster Preventing Plant Palettes
- Disaster Preventing Plant Palettes
- Plant Choice: Angels and Arsonists
- Palm Trees as Fire Hazards
- Combustibility of Landscape Mulches