How to plant a fire-smart yard (without turning it into a desert)

Your house doesn’t have to sit in a forest to be vulnerable to wildfire. Windblown embers can fly up to a mile in front of a fire. If they land on, say, a dried-out juniper in your yard, you could be in big trouble.

That’s why, if you live in a wildfire-prone part of the West, the first thing you need to do is create a fire-resistant space around your house.

Says Bob Roper, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department, “When firefighters drive up a street, they have to do triage”—decide which houses they have even a chance of saving. One protected by a defensible zone offers the best odds.

Think of the first 30 feet from your house as the Garden Zone. If you’re seeking maximum fire protection, areas closest to your house (to 5 feet out) should emphasize hardscaping. From there, continue with paths, patios, and other hardscaping, but also use well-watered plants such as lawn grass or groundcovers.

From 30 to 100 feet out is the Greenbelt Zone, with low-growing perennials, and shrubs clustered into islands. Plant trees far enough apart—and trim them—so flames can’t spread from one to the next.

The final step? Thin, prune, mow, and rake your property regularly so it stays fire-resistant—for this fire season and all the ones to follow.

Slide show: Fire-smart plants

More in the blogs: See how a Santa Barbara plant expert saved his home from wild fire

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