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Make Your Landscape Fire-Resistant

Create a Fire-Resistant Landscape

Many homeowners are choosing to build homes in woodland areas. One of the hazards of the woodland lifestyle is the danger of wildfire. Make your home more fire-resistant with a few tips and ideas.

Fire-Resistant Landscape and Plants

Vegetation-free zones

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.

Construction and Building Materials Fire Safety

While the area around the home is important, the construction of the home itself also is significant. Local codes are your ultimate guidelines; here are some fundamentals:

  • Make sure the roof material is rated Class C or better for fire resistance. The roof is a critical area due to its surface area and tendency to accumulate blowing cinders.
  • Use brick, stone and metal where possible.
  • Buy fire-resistant materials or treat existing ones with fire-retardants.
  • Install dual-paned or triple-paned windows of tempered glass.
  • Install spark-arresting devices on all chimneys.
  • Hang shutters outdoors or fire-resistant drapery indoors.
  • Cover open areas in the foundation and eaves with metal screen.
  • Choose a building site away from the top of a ridge.
  • Keep firewood and LP tanks at least 30 feet away from the house. LP tanks should also be located at the same level as the home if possible.

Fire Precautions

In addition to the precautions listed above, there are a few more things that you can do to minimize your wildfire risk and assist firefighters when they arrive.

  • Have garden hoses ready at each outside water outlet.
  • Keep a ladder handy for quick access to the roof.
  • Make sure your house number is prominently displayed.
  • Maintain adequate accessibility by road by fire vehicles.
  • Develop and practice an evacuation plan.

Fire, like water, will follow the path of least resistance. Fires generally don't allow much time to react, so prevention and preparedness are critical.