Here in Santa Barbara, I've been through my share of wildfires in recent years. They're terrifying, dangerous, and the long-term effect on the community and the environment are painful and long lasting. Today, I thought I was going to write about massing plants to create beautiful, useful schemes, but when I read the headline in the L.A. Times, I changed tracks.

LA Times Headline
LA Times Headlne - 6.15.12
Who's Next?

Colorado is burning. Who's next? Wildfires have always been one of nature's tools for clearing out old growth and resetting the clock on ecosystems. Of course, the areas most likely to burn are also the most scenic places to live, so our settlements push further into places with high burn potential.

Do you live in an area vulnerable to fire? If you said, "That's not me; I don't live in the Wild West," think again. With the climate drying, winters losing the punch that kills off timber-devastating bugs, and predictable weather patterns a thing of the past, all bets are off. Last September, 100,000 acres of northern Minnesota raged, spreading choking blankets of smoke into Chicago.

Satellite view of fire plume over Chicago
Satellite view of fire plume over Chicago

Close To Home

What you do in your own garden might make the difference between having a smoky-but-still-standing place to return to and starting over.

These are a few of the basic guidelines most agencies endorse, though I caution you to check with local fire authorities to find out what they recommend where you live. Additionally, many fire departments provide free assessments to help you design and maintain the most fire-wise landscape possible.

- Assess Your Fire Risk: Homes at the top of a hill/ridge, or along a canyon are at a higher risk, since flames move uphill, driven by heat and wind. How thick is surrounding brush and other fuel sources? How much space is there between your home and the fuel? Do overhanging decks present tempting tinder?

- Create Defensible Space: Many of us still cling to a design aesthetic that places dense foundation plantings along the sides of our homes, and places trees nearby to provide shade for outdoor living areas. Not such a great idea in a fire area. When a fire crew is cruising your neighborhood as fire rages, you want them to look at your property and think, "We might be able to save this."

Santa Barbara Firescape Garden Zones
Santa Barbara Firescape Garden Zones

- Remove Fuel Plants: Think of your home as the center of a bulls-eye with four rings around it.

Zone 4: The outermost ring, where untamed brush meets your garden, should be managed as an archipelago of fuel. Create gaps of at least 15-feet between "islands" of vegetation. This reduces the likelihood of a continuous "fuse" leading to your home.

Zone 3: The next ring in consists of fine-foliage plants, so if they do burn, they burn quickly and produce as little ash and cinders as possible. In my zone, plants like lavender and catmint do the job. Also, limb-up trees (following good arboricultural practices) to a height of at least 6-feet, to prevent a ground fire from climbing a "fuel ladder" into the canopies.

Zone 2: Closer to the house, choose plants with higher water content, like succulents or other slow-to-burn plants recommended for your area.

Zone 1: The space closest to the house (30-feet wide is commonly recommended) should be free of plant material right against the house. This zone benefits by having an irrigated lawn or low ground covers. This area should be adequately watered throughout the drier times of the year, and make sure trees are planted at least ten feet from structures. Avoid known flammable trees with high natural oil / sap content, like pines and eucalyptus.

- Maintain What You Plant: It doesn't take long for garden plants to accumulate lots of dead twigs inside and dried leaves below. Mulch is your friend in terms of soil health, and it's okay in a firewise garden as long as you keep the ground moist. A 3-inch layer of gravel can be just as effective and doesn't provide any fuel.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by wildland fires, especially the professionals and volunteers who put their lives on the line to protect us. But Nature never said she was done. As climate change continues, it's highly likely that areas of the country that would never have been at risk might find themselves confronted with the same conditions we westerners have braced for.

If fire comes to your neighborhood, your garden might make all the difference in your future.

Bureau of Land Management



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