What Can I Do to Be Safe?

You and I can help protect our homes from wildland fire. There’s a third fire triangle to go with the fire and fire behavior triangles: the fire protection triangle (Figure 7.5). We homeowners are one part. The other two are the structural and wildland fire specialists. Many of the things described below are easy to do – raking leaves away from the house and cleaning out the gutters, for instance. They can make a big difference in reducing the risks to us, the risk to people in fire services, and in protecting our homes and landscapes.

Being careful not to start fires is a way to start, but there are several things you can do to make your landscape safer, your home more fire-resistant, and your neighborhood FireWise.

This is not the city. You cannot expect a 4-minute response time from the fire truck to help you put out a fire. Depending on where you live and how you prepare, you can be ready to minimize fire spread and damage until a fire crew can make it to your house. As you’ll see later in this chapter, you really can help that fire team to do its job.

Figure 7.5: Fire Protection Triangle
Three key elements of the fire protection triangle: structural firefighters, wildland firefighters, and the foundation of the triangle – the homeowner.
Illustration by Sarah Lynch-Walker.

As we mentioned earlier, it will not be too long before insurance companies begin to rate areas for fire safety just like they currently rate flood and earthquake prone areas. To a certain extent they already do. Many homeowners have found that their rates are lower because they are closer to a fire hydrant. When insurance companies begin to charge for fire risk, they will almost certainly offer price breaks for homes and landscapes that are prepared for fire, as well as for FireWise Communities.

The beginning of this chapter gave you a lot of information about fire in general. This section will educate you further about fire behavior and how you can use your knowledge to protect your home.

Don't Start a Fire

It seems silly to say this, but, as we already heard, most fires are started by people. Be careful with fire whenever you use it. Many of us work very hard and leave the chores to the weekend. When Saturday comes it is time to burn the trash, or do your annual burn of warm season lawn grasses, yard waste, etc. Trouble erupts when you fail to notice that it is too windy to do those chores, or don’t know that it is too dry, ignore a burning ban, or, worst of all, multi-tasking has you sweeping the driveway at the same time you are supposed to be watching the burning. If you use fire you have to be careful, mindful of the conditions that can enhance a fire, and vigilant.

Outdoor grilling causes a large number of wild fires annually. Be careful grilling on windy days. Watch out for grease fire and flare-ups. Be absolutely sure that all the coals are completely cold before disposing of them.

Fire Behavior

Wildland fire can spread to your home either directly when it burns right up to the side of your home, or indirectly when wind-borne embers or firebrands land on your roof or in your gutters and ignite where they land. Preparing your landscape you can prevent or at least slow the advance of the fire at a distance where fire cannot touch your home. If you plant the proper plants and minimize the fuel near your home as much as you are able, you can also minimize the chance for firebrands or burning embers to make it to your home. Of course, under some circumstances such as high winds and large fires, firebrands can travel great distances. In addition to preparing your landscape to keep fire at a distance, you can design, maintain, or alter your home to minimize its flammability due to firebrands or even direct contact with fire.

Protect Your Landscape

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to protect your home (Figure 7.6) is to either design or retrofit your landscape with the principles of FireWise Landscaping. There is a FireWise Landscaping website with lots of specific information located at www.firewise.org. Using these principles applies the fire knowledge we just reviewed to make it very difficult for fire to travel across your landscape to your home; however, there is no such thing as fire proof landscaping or homes. Several completely burned out communities in California learned that lesson during the Station Fire in 2009. They were designed with FireWise principles, constructed using fire resistant design and materials, and maintained, yet they succumbed to fire. FireWise is a good plan but it is not the same as fire proof! Using the FireWise plan can significantly increase your odds for survival in a wildland fire. If you haven’t already, do an Internet search with your state’s name and “firewise” in the search box for additional information.

Figure 7-6
How fire travels at the Wildland/Urban Interface.
Illustration by Sarah Lynch-Walker.

By landscaping your home to minimize highly flammable materials in the area near it you can provide the equivalent of a firefighters fire break. You can do this with non-flammable materials such as stone mulch, patios, etc., but you can also do this by carefully selecting and arranging your plantings. This concept is termed Defensible Space. It depends on some simple ideas to make your Defensible Space less flammable:

The Concepts for FireWise Defensible Space:

  • Maintain a 30-100 feet wide safety zone around structures – use the Zone concept
  • Minimize the amount of “fuel”
  • Eliminate the opportunity for flames to come in direct contact with homes or other structures
  • Prevent plant-to-plant spread of fire
  • Use fire-resistant mulches and ground covers like those mentioned in Table 7.1
  • Use fire resistant plants like those mentioned later in the chapter

Maintain a Safety Zone Around Structures

The key to maintaining a Defensible Space is to maintain a zone around the house and other structures that is very fire resistant. The size of this area is variable. Experts advise between 30 and 100 feet of buffer. A number of factors should go into your decision as to how much space to allow. Part of your Defensible Space decision is based on what you are able to do given your property size. You can’t clear wildlands, forestry lands, or national parks at all, and you can’t clear your neighbors’ properties without some kind of agreement with them. We will discuss how you can work with your neighbors later in the section about FireWise Communities. If you live near a pine plantation or are surrounded by mountain laurel, you should allow as much space as possible. If, on the other hand, your area has less intense fires, you can get by with less of a Defensible Space. A way to think about this is if you live in a deciduous forest, 30 feet could be an adequate buffer, while in a pine forest the buffer should be closer to 75 feet.

Figure 7-7
Fire climbing up the fuel ladder from the ground to the forest canopy.
Photo by Brady Beck.

Where your house lies in the landscape is another important part of your Defensible Space decision. In hilly terrain, if your home is at the top of a slope, you will need more space on the side of the house facing the slope to counteract how a wildfire can race up a slope. Allow no less than 30 extra feet for the sloped area in addition to the other buffer areas. If you can leave a 100-foot buffer, all the better. If the space you have is limited you could consider terracing the slope to slow fire spread. If the face of the terraces is not flammable such as stone retaining walls, ground fires can be checked, and even more severe fires can be slowed substantially. Additionally you can remove the most flammable species such as juniper, pine, and cedar (see more about plant choices later). If your home is in a wide open space where strong winds might drive a fire towards your house you should allow more space on that side of your house.

How your landscape is planted is the last component of your Defensible Space decision. Below we will talk about FireWise planting choices. If you have a landscape with plants that are more flammable you should arrange more of a buffer between the wildlands where fire could be burning and those flammable plantings.

A good way to tie these concepts together is the “Zone Concept”. By thinking of four functional zones around your house you can do a lot to help defend your house from encroaching fire (Figure 7.8).

Figure 7.8: The Zone Concept
Establishing zones in your yard.
Illustration by Sarah Lynch-Walker.

Figure 7.9: Types of Fire
Types of wildlands fire and how the Fire Ladder effect allows fires to spread faster.
Illustration by Sarah Lynch-Walker.

Eliminate Opportunities for Fire Spread

Lots of people who live near the Wildland/Urban Interface have decks, fences, and other wooden structures attached to their homes which are in direct contact with the ground. Worse still, these wooden structures have plantings that actually touch the wood. This gives fire a direct connection to your home or other structures on your property. It is best to avoid having plantings that actually touch the house, or to have these plantings isolated from the surrounding landscape by hard structures such as patios or stone pathways.

Prevent Plant-to-Plant Spread of Fire

Obviously plants fuel a fire. Planting them so that there are slower burning buffers between more flammable plantings can help stop the spread of fire towards your house. For example, shrubs or trees in the landscape can be separated from one another by expanses of lawn or non-flammable mulches.

One thing to avoid in the landscape is the tendency to layer plants from lower to higher. This is a classic landscaping technique but it can allow a ground fire to burn first on the ground then to ever higher growing shrubs, trees, and eventually the house; or, it could help a slowly moving ground fire morph into a rapidly burning crown fire. This effect is known as the fire ladder, and stacking your plants like that is what is termed ladder fuels.

In order to minimize the potential for disaster with this type of planting you should consider doing it in such a way as to ensure that the stacked bed is far from the home in a stand-alone bed. Another, less favorable approach is to isolate the beds that are ladder fuels from encroaching fire by having them deep in your landscape and isolated by some type of hardscape: the driveway or stone walkway.

Use Fire-Resistant Mulches and Ground Covers

There are many choices for fire resistant barriers (see Table 7.1). Consider incorporating them into your landscape. Using crushed stone mulches is one way to keep a ground fire from encroaching on your grounds.

Use Fire-Resistant Plants

No plant is fire proof, but some plants are less flammable than others. If you must use really flammable plantings in your landscape, plant them farther from the house, don’t group or isolate them from fire by using hardscapes.

There are lists of plants assorted by their flammability. Some of this knowledge is amassed by experience and common sense, but a good deal of Cooperative-Extension-based research has gone into determining the flammability of certain plants. At the end of this chapter there is a large list of plants; however, no list can hope to keep ahead of the number of plants available or newly introduced into the nursery trade. When you are going to select a plant for your landscape, remember what you know about fuels and fire behavior from the beginning part of this chapter,and try to evaluate a plant selection based on what you know about flammability.

The things that influence a plant's flammability are:

  • Moisture Content: The moisture content of the leaves and plant have a considerable influence on the ability of a fire to ignite the fuel in the plant. The more moisture in the plant, the more energy must be expended to drive off the moisture before the leaves can ignite. This moisture is dependent on the nature of the plant to a certain extent. Succulents have more moisture in their leaves than grasses or pines.

    Equally important, however, is the moisture that has been available to the plant in the recent past. Fire seasons are fire seasons because the fuel that is available is dryer. Fire season is usually one of the drier seasons of the year when most plant moisture is below ground. Any season can be drier than normal, however. After an extended drought, even leafed-out deciduous trees in summer can be as dry as they are in winter. This is one reason to be aware of your surroundings when you live at the Wildland/Urban Interface. Choosing plants that are less prone to drought stress is one approach, while another is to minimize the use of plants that are prone to dryness, or even to eliminate them from the Defensible Space of your landscape altogether. Masses of dried warm season grasses are stunning in the landscape and very important areas for wildlife; however, they shouldn’t be the main planting on that steep slope up to your deck or allowed to run as a meadow within your Defensible Space perimeter.

  • Leaf and Twig Shape: The finer the cut on the leaf, the more flammable it is likely to be. That is one of the reasons pine needles tend to be more flammable than round leaves, as found on dogwoods. Finer, divided leaves have a much larger surface to volume ratio, so just like smaller pieces of food, they will heat up rapidly, allow the moisture to be cooked off, and ignite. Minimize the contact of your fine leaved plants with your structures and the outside of your protected space perimeter.

  • Presence of Oils or Resins: It should not be a surprise to you that pine trees, cedars, and the like are filled with flammable resins. They are particularly susceptible to ignition. It would be a good idea to keep them apart from plantings that could be considered ladder fuels, and also from steep slopes.

    Many other plants such as rhododendrons, laurels, etc., also have high levels of resins and other flammable compounds.

  • Branching Pattern: The branching pattern of the plants can effect a whole plant’s flammability. Just like finely cut leaves, the finer the branches, the easier it is to drive off the moisture and reach the ignition point.

  • Deciduous vs. Evergreen: Deciduous trees shed their leaves each year. This build up of dry leaves on the ground can lead to surface fires when they are dry. In the summer the leaves are still on the trees and filled with moisture. Much higher temperatures or prolonged contact with a flame are required to cause deciduous trees to ignite during summer months.

    Evergreen trees often contain more plant resins to enable them to withstand freezing temperatures. The resins are more flammable, and can ignite at lower temperatures.

  • Retention of Dead Material on the Plant: If a plant retains its leaves throughout the year, or if it only slowly drops off dead parts (like palmettos or palm trees, American Beech, and some oaks like Scarlet Oak), this dead material is quite flammable. It is quite easy for a ground fire to ignite the dead material on a plant and then cause the fire to become a crown fire. If you have these types of plants in your landscape it is best to frequently remove and maintain the dead materials.

    Standing warm season grasses are quite flammable when they are dry in the winter. The tall, standing dead leaves are striking and normally the reason why people plant these grasses. They are also important as habitat for a variety of animals. It is best to use these types of plants at the edges of your Defensible Space, or to make certain that they are isolated by hardscape from where a fire could approach.

The following plant lists in Table 7.2 and Table 7.3 were developed for Virginia. There are lists of FireWise Planting selections for almost every state. Ask your Cooperative Extension Agent about the lists, or check with your state Department of Forestry.