2020 was a year full of challenges, including being the third driest year in California history since 1895. As of January 2021, Northern California was experiencing “Severe to Extreme Drought” conditions, with little improvement made over the last few months.
There has never been a more urgent time to assess your current outdoor spaces and evaluate the need for firescaping (which involves implementing fire-resistant landscape designs and strategies).
What Does Firescaping Involve?
Firescaping is the strategic practice of making your property as safe and fire-resistant as possible through a variety of techniques. It encompasses a range of landscape and hardscape practices, from planting high moisture shrubbery to creating fire-resistant zones through stone walls, patios, or driveways.
Just because you want your property to maintain the highest level of defense against wildfire threats doesn’t mean it has to have primarily concrete with no lush vegetation or green space. With careful planning, skillful firescaping can greatly reduce your property’s vulnerability in the event of a fire while still enhancing the natural beauty of your landscape.
Understanding the Importance of Defensible Space
Over the past few years, homeowners in Northern California areas have heard more and more about the necessity of creating “defensible space” on their property. In general, defensible space refers to creating a buffer of protection between your home and flammable vegetation and debris. The goal of defensible space is to prevent a wildfire from spreading quickly and dangerously close to your home. The layout, maintenance, and landscape selection in this area help to at minimum slow down a fire and ideally stop it in its tracks. This thoughtfully planned space also enables firefighters to more efficiently address any wildfire issues on your property, as well as giving them better protection.
In dangerously prone areas, especially throughout Sonoma County and beyond, property owners are willing to invest in reducing the risk of structural damage due to wildfire. CAL FIRE has broken up this space into two different zones surrounding a house.
Zone 1: The immediate 30 feet surrounding any house, structure, deck, etc.
What to take care of in Zone 1:
Ensure all dead vegetation, dry leaves, needles, etc. are removed from the landscape, gutters, and roof area on a regular basis
Eliminate any branches that extend over the roof and ensure dead branches are kept at least 10 feet away from other trees and any structures
Maintain regular landscape care with tree trimming, pruning, debris removal, irrigation, etc.
Create an adequate space between all trees, plants, and other vegetation or items that may be prone to catch fire (outdoor furniture, playground sets, design elements) to reduce spread
Zone 2: Encompasses 100 feet from the house, structure, deck, etc.
What to take care of in Zone 2:
Make sure annual grass is regularly mowed down to 4 inches or shorter
Maintain a horizontal space between any vegetation such as shrubs and trees, as well as a proper vertical space between grass (see CAL FIRE guidelines for more information)
Clear off dead leaves, twigs, branches, pine cones, etc. that may be fire fuel as frequently as possible
The goal of aggressive firescaping should ultimately be to slow down or stop a fire in its tracks, which requires more than just basic landscape care and maintenance. While these practices are a great start and crucial for homeowners in Marin, Napa and Sonoma County to maintain, there are many additional steps that can be taken to ensure the strongest defensible space between your home and a fire.
Redesigning Your Landscape with Wildfire Threats in Mind
When you invest in owning a home, you want to make sure that home is beautiful on the interior and exterior. For many homeowners, the thought of creating fire-resistant landscaping sounds either too expensive or like it will become an eyesore. With modern design styles and techniques, firescaping can result in a beautiful and tasteful home exterior without sacrificing the the safety of your property--while sometimes becoming even more affordable to maintain than traditional landscape designs.
Whether you are just beginning the process of designing your new home landscape or have begun to rethink your current home’s outdoor space, creating defensible space and a fire-resistant exterior doesn’t have to be difficult.
Some effective firescaping strategies include:
Mixing up larger vegetation areas with fire-resistant shrubs or plants alongside materials that are non-combustible
Minimizing the number and overall size of trees and shrubs that may turn into fire fuel (and to prevent overcrowding that can result in dead plants)
Creating groupings of ground cover and shrubs instead of a continuous design pattern, which allows for fire breaks
Utilizing boulders, stone, gravel, or other noncombustible materials along pathways to provide bare spaces (fire break)
Selecting plants, trees, and vegetation that maintain a higher moisture content (more fire-resistant), are low in resin and sap content, and do not have rough bark
Incorporating native vegetation that is more likely to be fire-adapted and prevent erosion from fire damage
Reviewing plant selection to ensure there is minimal off-season litter or debris (minimal shed of leaves, needles, bark, etc. which can be fire fuel)
Removing any current flammable plants that are more common in Northern California, such as juniper shrubs, Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, pine trees, spruce trees, and fir trees.
Creating larger zones that are fire-resistant, such as stone wall details, patios, stepping stone pathways, decks, driveways, and other design elements that can create fire breaks and eliminate excessive green space (general hardscape)
Select less flammable mulch materials or gravel in planting beds that will allow for better moisture retention in the soil
Installing a retaining wall to protect your house from floating embers (can disrupt airflow) and / or add stone walls to separate groups of plants for more fire resistance
Maintaining your landscape irrigation system to ensure all vegetation is lush, thriving, and holding onto moisture (dry or dying plants can often be the greatest fire fuel even if debris and leaves are regularly removed)
Preparing Homes for Wildfire Across Northern California
Creating defensible space from wildfire on your property not only helps to protect your own home, but also the homes of others in your community. Taking aggressive steps through firescaping can enhance the value, beauty, and strength of your home while improving safety for your neighbors.