Getting back to nature, seeking solitude, escaping the rat race — all good reasons why more homeowners are choosing to build homes in woodland areas. The trend is so prevalent nationwide that these areas have a name, the urban-wildland interface.
With the woodland lifestyle comes risk. One of the primary hazards is the danger of wildfire. The persistent drought in many parts of the United States has made wildfire an even larger menace. Bark beetle infestations have added to the supply of dead, dry wood in many forests.
The following precautions are highly recommended. Implementing them is a small price to pay for living your dream. In many urban-wildland interface areas these "recommendations" are laws. Check your local codes for clarification.
Your top priority outdoors is creating a defensible space around the house or other structures. "Defensible space" is the term that defines an area around the house where flammable material has been removed or reduced.
This area serves as a fuel break and buffer zone. The goal is to keep a fire moving slow and low until it can be extinguished. The space serves two purposes in the event of wildfire — to slow the fire down and give firefighters a space to concentrate on saving the house itself.
The minimum defensible space around a home is 30 feet. This area has little or no vegetation. As alternatives, walkways and stone walls can help dress up the landscape.
A second zone extending an additional 75 feet is also recommended. This area has more vegetation, but still follows firewise guidelines. The secondary zone needs to be larger if the home is on top of a slope — up to 100 feet is advisable.
If these defensible space dimensions exceed your property lines, make every effort to get your neighboring property owners involved in making the area firewise.
The key steps to a fire-safe landscape include:
- Clear any dead vegetation from around your home.
- Clear or trim vegetation from around the house that might encourage fire or allow fire to "leapfrog" to another spot. Foundation plantings especially need to be addressed.
- Remove limbs that hang over the roof and any limbs within 15 feet of your chimney.
- Choose fire-resistant plants for the landscape.
- Keep the area raked. Pine needles and leaves are perfect fuel for fires.
- Remove duff. Duff is a layer of decomposing organic matter that lies below freshly fallen leaves and above the soil. Duff can ignite and smolder unnoticed.
- Decrease the number of trees in heavily wooded areas. Thin existing trees to 10 feet apart at crowns. Keep the ground below trees free of debris.
- Any new tree or shrub plantings should be at least 10 - 15 feet apart. Remember to use the mature width when calculating the planting space.
- Plant in smaller beds. They are safer than large, massed plantings. Space taller plants further apart than shorter ones.
- Don't plant trees underneath electrical lines. Have the power company keep limbs clear of power lines, or have the lines installed underground.
- Keep dead or diseased trees and shrubs pruned or remove them.
- Don't pile brush. Chip it and it use in compost or remove it for disposal.
- Use rock and stepping stones for landscape features instead of plants, especially within the defensible space.
- Diversify plant selections. This reduces the chance of pests and diseases. Healthy plants are more fire-resistant.
- Mow regularly. Grasses should be no taller than 8 inches, especially in the dormant season.
- Irrigate plants as well as your water situation allows.
- Avoid shrubs, trees and mulches with high resin content.
- Clean debris from the roof and gutters. Needles and leaves on the roof and in the gutters provide tinder for blowing sparks.
- Use thin layers of mulch; enough to suppress weeds but not enough to smolder for hours.
- Avoid ladder fuels. These are subsequent plantings of grass and groundcovers, shrubs and then trees. This style of planting allows fire to move up to the treetops.
- Maintain all plants by regularly removing dead branches, leaves and needles.