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Cool Green Gardens

Santa Barbara Burning

When chaparral vegetation burns, the smoke becomes enemy number one, impeding access and visibility. Photo by edhat.com
Photo/Illustration: edhat.com
When the smoke comes, life becomes a sci-fi movie. Vocabulary words include “apocalypse,” “Armageddon,” and “OMG!”
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
80 ft. flame lengths were common, fueled by dry fuel and high winds. Photo by edhat.com
Photo/Illustration: edhat.com
At times, the flames would lay down but the smoldering continued, ready for the next 70 mph gust to rekindle the blaze.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
The windblown ash infiltrated every nook and cranny in town. Delicate blue lobelia flowers were not immune.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
The planting at the entrance of Santa Barbara’s Firescape Demonstration Garden is intended to catch peoples’ eye. Sedum rubrotinctum is a colorful groundcover, while a spikey Phormium ‘Jack Spratt’ (front left) and Protoasparagus ‘Myers’ (back) add a vertical accent. Behind the sign, big brother Phormium ‘Dark Delight’ reinforces the strong coppery foliage while Euryops pectinatus viridis brings cheery yellow daisies to the composition.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
When chaparral vegetation burns, the smoke becomes enemy number one, impeding access and visibility. Photo by edhat.com
Photo/Illustration: edhat.com
When the smoke comes, life becomes a sci-fi movie. Vocabulary words include “apocalypse,” “Armageddon,” and “OMG!”
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
80 ft. flame lengths were common, fueled by dry fuel and high winds. Photo by edhat.com
Photo/Illustration: edhat.com
At times, the flames would lay down but the smoldering continued, ready for the next 70 mph gust to rekindle the blaze.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
The windblown ash infiltrated every nook and cranny in town. Delicate blue lobelia flowers were not immune.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
The planting at the entrance of Santa Barbara’s Firescape Demonstration Garden is intended to catch peoples’ eye. Sedum rubrotinctum is a colorful groundcover, while a spikey Phormium ‘Jack Spratt’ (front left) and Protoasparagus ‘Myers’ (back) add a vertical accent. Behind the sign, big brother Phormium ‘Dark Delight’ reinforces the strong coppery foliage while Euryops pectinatus viridis brings cheery yellow daisies to the composition.
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick

Picture an idyllic garden photograph we’ve seen a hundred times: An old garden bench half-obscured by rambling nasturtium, paint flaking from the bench’s dry wood onto the mossy ground below.

Now imagine discovering that the white flakes–some the size of a child’s hand–aren’t paint chips. They are ashes, delivered by Santa Barbara’s hot, dry winds screaming down from last week’s Jesusita inferno.

The windblown ash infiltrated every nook and cranny in town. Delicate blue lobelia flowers were not immune.

As a Santa Barbara city employee, I get pulled in to work logistics whenever there’s a major emergency. At 8 a.m. last Friday, I had returned home from a graveyard shift at the operations center. My car, driveway, porch and plants were covered with a thick, acrid layer of ash. Inside my house, brown grit infiltrated upholstery, counter tops, floors, even toothbrushes.

“I’ll just sweep the front porch and keep this crap from tracking in on our shoes,” I thought.

The next thing I knew, I was halfway down the driveway, sweeping as gently as I could, coaxing the mess into planter beds. There was no way I was going to start hosing down the pavement. Water was needed to fight the fire, which had consumed 75 homes and caused the evacuation of one-third of the community.

More Reading
Firewise Landscaping: How Safe Is Your Home?
Learn how to create a defensible (and beautiful) space around your home
At the Firescape Demonstration Garden, Sedum rubrotinctum is a colorful groundcover. Phormium ‘Jack Spratt’ (front left) and Protoasparagus ‘Myers’ (back) add vertical accents. Behind the sign, Phormium ‘Dark Delight’ reinforces the strong coppery foliage while Euryops pectinatus viridis brings cheery yellow daisies to the composition.

As I swept, a wet bandanna over my smudged face, a thought came to me: The white flakes I was cursing were the remains of not only the tough chaparral that was fueling the blaze, but probably the walls, furniture, and possessions of families whose homes were now smoldering memories.

Now it’s Tuesday, a week after the Jesusita fire erupted. A few statistics:

– 3,000 emergency personnel are still working the fire

– 28 firefighters have been injured

– An estimated $12.2 million dollars have been spent to protect life and property

Statistics help to quantify some aspects of the fire, but how do we absorb and process the wrenching, life changing effects?

While the fire roared across the sun-baked Santa Ynez Mountains, I thought about the City of Santa Barbara’s Firescape Demonstration Garden. The twenty-five year old garden occupies 1.7 acres and is located across the street from the Stanwood Drive firehouse, which has seen a lot of action recently. The Firescape Garden was the brainchild of a few dedicated horticulturists and fire experts who wanted to teach homeowners how to create landscapes that would make homes safer in the event of wildfire. One of those people was Owen Dell, my co-host on Garden Wise Guys, an educational and quite silly regional public TV show. Owen and I write and “act” (apologies to Sir Guilgud) in the 30-minute program sponsored by local water agencies. Last year, Owen and I redesigned the garden and then used it in the show to teach locals about fire safety. Episode six is the first of four shows with segments about landscaping in high fire areas.

If you’re interested in learning about creating a safer landscape around your home, click through to the next installment of this blog post. You’ll learn how to create specific zones of planting that help take the energy out of an approaching fire. I’ve also added a few links for more detailed information.

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Comments

  1. gardenchick 05/13/2009

    Fantastic post! Glad I live in tornado country. Gardening "firewise" doesn't have to mean surrounding the homefront with cactus and I'm glad you showed us how to do it beautifully and intelligently. You are a great resource. As always, love your writing and look forward to more!

  2. susan_morrison 05/16/2009

    I went to school at UCSB and still have friends there. Several were evacuated, but no one's home burned, although others, of course, were not so lucky.

    Firescaping is a big topic in the East Bay in Northern California; specifically for those in high risk areas, on slopes, next to open space and in neighborhoods with restricted access. It certainly makes you rethink what makes a landscape or garden. But that's part of what makes gardening fun, always reinventing.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. ShirleyBovshow 05/25/2009

    I have family (and you) in SB and think about you guys when these fires errupt. How did the firescape garden at SB Botanical do? Did the fire go into the gardens?
    Shirley

  4. scottcalhoun 08/21/2009

    Great post. Since I got ash in my eyes last week during my visit to Santa Barbara, it was nice to hear your perspective on gardening in fireland. I've done a garden design project in the community of Summerhaven on Mt. Lemmon up the mountain from Tucson, which burned to the ground a few years ago and it is interesting to see which homes and gardens made it and which were toast.

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