Bone-dry air. Drought-stressed vegetation. Santa Ana winds. Add a spark, and you have the potential for raging wildfires like those that ravaged Southern California in October, 2003. The statistics from these firestorms are startling: roughly 750,000 acres burned; about 4,800 homes destroyed; many lives lost.
Of the 15 separate October blazes, the Cedar Fire in San Diego is responsible for the largest loss of homes and lives. At its most furious, it produced flames 400 feet high, says Tracy Jarman, assistant fire chief at San Diego Fire-Rescue. Wind carried its embers as far as 2 miles and created radiant heat so intense that houses ignited from several blocks away.
How can we keep our homes and gardens safe from future threats? The right landscaping plays an important role. Here are steps you can take to protect your property.
CREATE A DEFENSIBLE SPACE
"The single most important thing you can do to protect your home is to make a defensible space around it," says inspector Roland Sprewell of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Sprewell says that defensible space ― a combination of fire-resistant plants, hardscape, and accessibility for fire crews ― helped save Stevenson Ranch, a subdivision north of Los Angeles. "The fire was making a run toward the homes," he recalls, "but the tract had a wide greenbelt of succulents on the lower slope that gave us space to stand our ground."
But outside of Stevenson Ranch, some homes were impossible to defend, Sprewell says. Faced with uncleared brush, dense plantings near houses, lots of flammable vegetation, and tree limbs hanging over roofs, firefighters have to move on, he says. "We're forced to concentrate on the homes we have a chance of saving," he explains.
To create defensible space, reduce the fuel supply. Starting from the perimeter of your property and working inward:
USE NONFLAMMABLE FENCING
Fence materials such as cinder block or stuccoed cement are better than wood, especially if you live at the base of a hill, since they can stop rolling embers. Homeowner Betsy Evatt believes that wood fences helped spread the fire in the Amber Ridge development of San Diego's Scripps Ranch, where her home is one of the few still standing. Most of the houses in Evatt's area had cedar fences behind them. When the fences caught fire, they created a path to the homes. Evatt had a wood fence too, but she surrounded it with a swath of succulents.
Elsewhere outdoors, use metal (not wood) for patio covers, arbors, and trellises.
CLEAN UP YOUR YARD
Situate firewood and propane tanks at least 30 feet from the house. Move plastic trash cans away from homes and wood fences; melted ones ignited adjacent structures in the recent fires. Keep gutters clear of dead leaves and other debris.
MAKE YOUR HOME FIRE-RESISTANT
Use metal, concrete, clay tile, or fiber cement-shake roofing in fire-prone areas. "Wood-shake roofs and adjacent wildland are an explosive combination," says Jarman of San Diego Fire-Rescue. The wind during the Cedar Fire was strong enough at times to carry burning 2-by-4s. When embers landed on wood shake, the roofs ignited.
Homeowners in Scripps Ranch agree. "There's not a wood-shake home left in our tract (Phase I of Loire Valley)," says Ken Smith. His home was spared; it has a steel roof. Other things you can do:
TEAM UP WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS
Lytle Creek, a mountain community in San Bernardino County, is a good example of neighbors uniting to protect their homes. The community formed a local chapter of the Fire Safe Council, and together its members cleared tons of brush from around their homes before fire season. Because of their efforts, firefighters were able to save most Lytle Creek homes.
People living in high fire-hazard areas need evacuation plans. "Don't rely on thinking calmly," warns Scripps Ranch homeowner Laurie Sanders-Cannon. By the time the evacuation notice finally comes, you may have only minutes to make decisions.
Decide on an evacuation route, and establish an emergency meeting place outside the home where family members can reunite. Make copies of legal documents and store them off-site.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Consult these resources for additional guidelines:
www.firewise.org This site, sponsored by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program, offers a free book (you pay shipping) called Firewise Communities: Where We Live, How We Live; it includes photographs of fire-safe landscapes.
www.laspilitas.com Las Pilitas Nursery provides fire-safe guidelines and a list of fire-resistant plants.
www.lafd.org/brush On the Los Angeles Fire Department's website, you'll find a fire-safety checklist.
IF YOUR GARDEN BURNED...
What, if anything, can be done now or soon to repair the scorched landscape? In the past, seeding with annual ryegrass has been relied on, says Tom Scott, a University of California at Berkeley natural resources specialist based at UC Riverside. But seeding has not proven to be an effective slope stabilizer. "What it does manage to do," Scott says, "is interfere with the natural healing process." Western native-plant communities recover on their own, he says. Shrubs often resprout within the first week after a fire, he adds.
Doing nothing, at least initially, is the best course of action in home gardens as well, says Vincent Lazaneo, an urban horticultural advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, San Diego. "If the fire hasn't burned through the cambium layer (the growth tissue), plants survive," he says. Wait to see if any new growth emerges in midspring, he advises. Delaying any new planting until after winter rains is a good idea anyway. "Even if a plant is dead, its roots help stabilize the soil for at least a year," Lazaneo explains.