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    Firescaping with Waterwise Plants

     (Note: This article is based on the principles outlined in the book Firescaping, written by author and designer Douglas Kent,      published by Wilderness Press.) 

    California will always suffer from wildfires due to its climate and terrain. A large portion of our state is a Mediterranean-type climate, situated in a region close to the sea with hot and dry summers, recurring winds and with mountainous terrain—all of which create favorable conditions for fire. In drought conditions the risk of fire is even greater. 

    If not stopped quickly, wildfires can ferociously destroy everything in their paths. After destructive fires, it becomes obvious that the proper selection of landscape plants and good maintenance will go a long way toward reducing fire danger. Second only to roof type, the plants surrounding a house have an enormous influence in determining a home’s survival during a wildfire. “Vegetation will either lead a fire to a structure or stop it,” writes expert Douglas Kent. 

    Fire-Resistant Landscapes

    One of the greatest impacts a homeowner can have on property and personal safety is to create and maintain a fire-resistant landscape. Planning ahead and consistent maintenance can help stop devastating property loss and even loss of life. With careful planning a home garden or landscape can be both fire-resistant and waterwise. 

    Fireproof or Fire-resistant?

    As you make plant choices for fire-prone areas it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a fireproof plant—only fire-resistant. Just about any plant will burn if temperatures get hot enough. Also keep in mind that it takes about a year for plants (waterwise, fire-resistant, or not) to become established. Only when well-established, are plants truly waterwise. 

    Prevention Steps

    1. Understand which plants are fire-resistant. Research their fire retardant abilities as well as their drought tolerance.
    2. Your first task is to remove any dead, diseased or dying trees or shrubs.
    3. Flammable trees and shrubs should be replaced even if they have adapted to require little water.
    4. Keep brush and dried grass removed from the perimeter of your property so you have a “firebreak.”
    5. Keep shrubs and trees thinned out. Dense brush leads to dead debris buildup and more fuel. Keep skirts removed from palms.
    6. Keep irrigation systems in good working order and regularly check for adequate coverage. Even in a drought, don’t stop watering. Water within the guidelines and restrictions of your city.
    7. Keep your landscape in good condition.

          a. Feed with organic fertilizers. This will reduce quick, soft growth that often results from high-nitrogen              chemical fertilizers.
          b. Keep plants free of pests and diseases, reducing damaged or dead growth.
          c. Keep yards and gardens free of weeds.

    1. Reduce thatch buildup (dead leaves and stems) on groundcovers like ivy and lantana. Mowing every two years will keep the dead material removed.
    2. Keep roofs and gutters free of dead leaves and other debris.

    Firescaping Zones

    As you plan your waterwise, fire-resistant garden, think in terms of four zones. This firescaping technique was developed by designer and author Douglas Kent. 

    Each planting zone is designed around a particular purpose. Zone 1 is the garden zone, the space next to your home outward to 30 feet. It’s best to keep this space open. Plants in these areas will be the highest water users of your “low-water” palette, a typical practice of Mediterranean-climate gardens. 

    Moving away from your home from 30- to 70-feet, plants should be able to stop a ground fire. This is Zone 2. Plants chosen for this zone should reach a height of only 18 inches and be able to resist embers. 

    Zone 3 is a transition zone and is designed to slow fires. It’s approximately 71- to 120 feet from house. It’s composed of drought-tolerant plants and is typically unwatered once established.  It might be comprised of, for instance, a barrier planting of shrubs such as rockrose that can survive on rainwater. 

    For residents whose gardens adjoin foothills or natural, open spaces, these natural areas comprise Zone 4.  If your home and garden is surrounded by other homes, you won’t have a Zone 4. 

    Zone Summary

    1. Garden Zone – 1 to 30 feet from house. Plants need to withstand embers. Simple designs, large open spaces. (So firefighters can move around freely.) Landscape should be watered and kept green.
    2. Fuel Break – 31- to 70 feet from house. Must be able to stop a ground fire. No plants over 18-inches high. Plants must withstand fire.
    3. Transition Zone – 71- to 120 feet from house. Un-watered. This zone should slow the fire. A barrier planting of shrubs such as rockrose that can survive on rainwater.
    4. Natural Zone – Remove natural vegetation regularly. Your will not have this zone if your home is not bordered by foothills or other open, natural areas. 

    Waterwise Plants for Firescaping 

    Fire-Resistant, Waterwise Trees

    Tree selection should be done with care, since they will be in your garden for years.

    African Sumac (Rhus lancea)

    Carob (Ceratonia siliqua)

    California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)

    Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

    Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

    Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

    Cork Oak (Quercus suber)

    Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

    Guadalupe Fan Palm (Brahea edulis)

    Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)

    Palo Verde Tree (Parkinsonia sp.)

    Paperbark Tree (Melaleuca sp.)

    Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

    Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

    Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis)

    Fire-Resistant, Waterwise Shrubs

    California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

    Bush Morning Glory (Convolvulus cneorum)

    Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron sp.)

    Lantana (Lantana sp.)

    Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri)

    Monkey Flower (Mimulus sp.)

    Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

    Pineapple Guava (Feijoa sellowiana)

    Rockrose (Cistus sp.)

    Silverberry (Elaeagnus pungens)

    Fire-Resistant, Waterwise Groundcovers

    Creeping Coprosma (Coprosma kirkii)

    Lantana (Lantana sp.)

    Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)

    Myoporum (Myoporum parvifolium)

    Red Apple (Aptenia cordifolia)

    Rosea Ice Plant (Drosanthemum hispidum)

    Fire-Resistant, Waterwise Perennials

    Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

    Coreopsis (Coreopsis sp.)

    Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana)

    Euryops Daisy (Euryops sp.)

    Lavender (Lavandula sp.)

    Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus sp.)

    New Zealand Flax (Phormium sp.)

    Penstemon (Penstemon sp.)

    Seafoam Statice (Limonium perezii)

    Sea Pink (Armeria sp.)

    Fire-Resistant, Waterwise Cacti and Succulents

    Agave (Agave sp.)

    Aloe (Aloe sp.)

    Hens and Chicks (Echeveria sp.)

    Ice Plant (Lampranthus sp.)

    Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.)

    Stonecrop (Sedum sp.)

    Senecio (succulent-type Senecio sp.)

    Trailing Ice Plant (Delosperma sp., Drosanthemum sp.)

     

    Plants to remove or avoid planting in fire-prone areas

    (From Firescaping, by Douglas Kent, Wilderness Press) 

    Many plants contain volatile oils, wax or pitch which burn readily and can cause embers to fly with the prevailing winds—spreading a fire quickly. Included in this category are many classic, low-water plants—they must not be used in a firescape.

    Acacia (Acacia sp.)

    Algerian Ivy (Hedera canariensis)

    Arborvitae (Thuja sp.)

    Artemesia (Artemesia sp.)

    Bamboo (Bambusa, Phyllostachys and others)

    Cedar (Cedrus sp.)

    Cypress (Cupressus sp.)

    Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.)

    Fern Pine (Podocarpus sp.)

    Fir Tree (Abies sp.)

    Fountain Grass (Pennisetum sp.)

    Hopseed Bush (Dodonea viscosa)

    Juniper (Juniperus sp.)

    Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia mexicana)

    Miscanthus (Miscanthus sp.)

    Pines (Pinus sp.)

    Rosemary (Rosmarinus sp.)

    Spruce (Picea sp.)

    Learn more about Waterwise Gardening >

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