Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fire-Safe Gardening

     It must be August. The National Weather Service issued a "Fire Weather Watch" statement this week, warning rural homeowners in Northern California that there is "THE POTENTIAL FOR NUMEROUS LIGHTNING STRIKES TO OCCUR LATE WEDNESDAY NIGHT AND THURSDAY. THE MIDDLE AND LOWER ELEVATIONS ARE EXPECTED TO HAVE A HIGHER POTENTIAL FOR DRY LIGHTNING STRIKES THAN THE HIGHER ELEVATIONS."

    Wildfires will dominate the headlines here from now through October. Hot, dry, windy weather combined with dead and dying brush create conditions that have led to conflagrations last year in Calaveras, Shasta and Butte counties. Of course, the outlying areas of San Joaquin and Sacramento Counties face similar fire threats during August, September and October.

    Country dwellers and suburban residents whose yards may be ringed with overgrown weeds need to clear dry brush at least 30 feet away from their homes and other structures.

"At least 30 feet" may not be enough. Firefighters are currently encouraging rural homeowners to remove weeds and other flammable material for a radius of 100 feet from primary dwellings.

    Some homeowners are listening, but not acting in a prudent manner. The start of many grass fires in California are attributed to sparks from a lawn mower or setting down a hot weed trimmer in flammable weeds.

Some tips:
• Mow down dead grass and weeds early in the day, when the humidity is higher and the winds are calm. • Inspect the area before mowing, removing anything that may cause a spark to fly from a mower blade.
• Have a garden hose handy that can reach the entire area you're mowing.
• Don't leave hot equipment in the area while you take a break.
• Carry a cell phone or portable phone so you can immediately call for help if a fire breaks out.

    Although no plant is fireproof, there are many low-to-medium growing, high water content plants that, when carefully irrigated, could lower the risk of a spreading brush fire in future years that may threaten your home.

Besides a lawn, other good choices of high water content plants that can act as possible structure buffers for valley and foothill dwellers include: African daisy, agapanthus, aloe, dusty miller, gazania, ice plant, India hawthorn, yarrow and yucca.

     Avoid plants that can accumulate a lot of flammable, dead growth over a period of years. Prime offenders are ivy, bamboo, pampas grass, fountain grass and coyote brush. Other trees and shrubs that should not be planted near structures include fir, acacia, cedar, cypress, eucalyptus, pine, spruce, the pepper tree, California sagebrush, hopseed bush, juniper, scotch broom and arborvitae, commonly called thuja. Palms, if their dried fronds are not removed, can also be quite a fire danger.

    One more piece of advice from area firefighters for home owners in brush fire country: Many structures have a fence along one or more sides of the building that are less than 10 feet from the house. In order for firefighters to move easily through that area in an emergency, be sure not to block narrow pathways along the side of a dwelling with firewood or old household items.

Two of the best resources for country dwellers, or anyone surrounded by fields of tall weeds who want to modify their landscape to keep their home fire-safe are the books, "FireScaping" by Douglas Kent; or, Maureen Gilmer's, "California Wildfire Landscaping".
And, check out Maureen Gilmer's website for even more "firewise landscape plants".


  1. 100 feet is the law if you live in a wildland area or urban interface. If one heads out to clear grass now be very careful and only do it in the early morning when humidity is highest and use a string trimmer along with the other tips in the blog. Weedeaters with blades and mowers start many fires in light flashy fuels, such as grass, at this point in the fire season. Some other tips that will help firefighters be able to save your house if the fire approaches it are keep gutters and roofs clear of leaf litter and other debris, do not allow trees to overhang your home, do not stack firewood and other flammables against your home or other buildings and make sure your driveway is clear enough to allow a fire engine to access your property and turn around. If and when a fire threatens multiple homes, the homes are triaged for savability. If you have thick brush, flammables against your home and the firefighters do not have a safe avenue of escape in case everything goes wrong they will move on to a house that does.

  2. Good advice to re-visit. I have a 25 acre unmaintained scrub brush property directly behind me. The elderly lady that lived there didn't mind me clearing behind my fence but her nephew now in charge of the property doesn't want anyone on it at all. Not sure how to proceed, maybe I'll call the fire station and see what they recommend. Advice?

  3. Mike, good idea! Bring it to the attention of your local fire department.