Southwest Regional Reports

Firewise Gardening in Southern California

With careful plant choice and ongoing maintenance, you could protect your garden and home from the next blaze

burned Italian cypress
This border of Italian cypress burned up in a Los Angeles wildfire in 2017. Photo: Cara Hanstein

With so many Southern California neighborhoods adjacent to the foothills, it’s important to address fire safety in our landscape. Many residents near the foothills are forced to act on clearance issues every spring by their local fire departments. But it’s not only these neighborhoods that are vulnerable; we are seeing wind-fueled fires spreading into even urban areas. This brings fire safety to the forefront for all Southern California neighborhoods as we approach the dry season. Luckily, there are preventive measures you can take to protect your home and garden from the worst impact of wildfire.

removing grasses from around home
Keep the area immediately around your home surrounded by a nonflammable surface such as gravel rather than grass, which turns dry and crispy in summer. Photos: Cara Hanstein

Surround your home with a defensible space

It’s time to consider the layout of your landscape as it relates to fire safety. Many homes in our region are designed with planter beds placed against the house, which isn’t always the best idea for fire safety. These beds encourage planting right up to the structure. When thinking about fire safety, your first goal should be to create a defensible space surrounding your house. This means pulling the garden back away from the house so plants that can catch fire are less likely to make a bridge for the fire to reach your house.

mixed group of succulents and cacti
Succulents store lots of moisture in their foliage and trunks, making them less likely to burn compared to many other plants. Photo: Rachel Young

Choose fire-resistant plants

Another important consideration is choosing plants that are less likely to burn. While no plant is fireproof, some plants are more fire resistant than others. High-moisture plants like succulents can act as a barrier to the flames. I’ve seen photos of succulents touched by fire, and although they looked steamed, they were not fuel for the flames.

My parents’ home caught fire in the 2017 Creek fire in Los Angeles, and what seemed to encourage the spread in their instance was the highly flammable Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens, Zones 7–10) that they had planted close to their house. Make sure to choose plants that store more water in their leaves and stems, produce less dry material, are deciduous, or have low levels of oils or resins. Some plants to avoid right near your house are conifers, grasses, and anything woody or twiggy.

Italian cypress burned in wildfire
This coniferous Italian cypress acted as a bridge between a fire in my parents’ yard and a fire in their home because it was planted too close to the house. Photo: Cara Hanstein

Keep up with routine garden maintenance

Keeping your garden clear of dry debris is another impactful thing you can do to reduce your risk of fire damage. This material acts as tinder for the fire, so keep pruning out flammable dead material. Your plants will be healthier for it too! Some local fire agencies recommend storing dead material 30 feet from a structure, but check with your local department, as recommendations vary.

Prune tree limbs away from your home

Take a look at your trees—are they rubbing against your roof? Keep them pruned at least 6 to 10 feet above the structure. I encourage you to hire an ISA-certified and insured arborist to address any tree issues, as this professional will be informed on local guidelines and you will be protected from liability issues.

Protect your vents and gutters

Embers blowing in the wind spread fire quickly. Many of these embers end up catching on dry and dead material or entering through vents. Keep your vents covered with a metal mesh for extra protection. Also, keeping those gutters clear of dry leaves is essential.

Gardening is about forward thinking—we plant in anticipation of our beautiful future space. So think of these fireproofing steps as a hopeful act too! Learn more about firewise gardening here:

—Cara Hanstein is a head gardener at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

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