Wildfire lessons

What to do now to protect your home and garden

Fire threat protection
Photo: Steven Gunther

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.


"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:

  • Selectively thin native vegetation.
  • Plant low-growing, drought-tolerant groundcovers on the perimeter of your property. Widely space any trees or large shrubs.
  • Put low-growing, water-retentive, fire-resistant plants close to the house. Keep them well irrigated.
  • Install a buffer of hardscape (paving, decomposed granite) right next to the house. Or plant this area sparingly, using only low-growing, fire-resistant plants.


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.


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