Home Survival in Wildfire-Prone Areas

In California, wildfires are becoming more and more frequent and destructive. Fires have always been a part of the California ecology, but as communities grow and move further out into areas that were previously wildland, the fires have become more destructive to homes.

Three ways that fire can burn

First, it is important to understand how a home burns from a wildfire. There are three ways that a wildfire can burn a home.

  1. Direct contact with flames
  2. Embers from a fire even as far as a mile away, can move and get into nooks and crannies of the home and start a fire. Because of the notorious winds usually associated with fire in California, 60% of home fires are caused by embers.
  3. Radiant heat. Even without direct contact to flames, if a structure gets hot enough it can burst into flames.

In order to protect your home, you should understand each of these causes and use strategies that can deter each of these types of fires.

Creating a defensible space is the first line of defense for your home

This is a space that you create by planning plantings, pruning, and removal of trees, so that fire is less likely to reach your home. It also is important to leave room for a fire truck to get to your property in order to fight the fire.

The defensible zone can be broken down into three areas, from the house outward.

  • Zone 1: Zero to five feet is a noncombustible zone. In this zone, noncombustible material should be used for mulch, fences, and decks. There should be no vegetation in this zone. Use gravel, rock, or decomposed granite in place of wood mulches.
  • Zone 2: Five to 30 feet is the lean and clean zone. In this zone, islands of vegetation are created where plants are mowed and irrigated. Separate the groups of plants (or islands) with walkways of noncombustible materials–so fire cannot travel from one plant to another. Canopies of trees should not touch. Vegetation is thinned and pruned. Lower branches or trees are eliminated so that fire cannot travel from the ground up the tree.
  • Zone 3: Thirty to 100 feet is the reduced fuel zone. Reduce the density of vegetation to slow the spread of fire. Trees and shrubs should be well spaced and pruned to eliminate fuel ladders where fire can climb from the ground to the tops of vegetation.

Knowing where your home is most vulnerable to fire allows you to prioritize measures you can take to protect your home. No matter whether you live on the border between wild lands and an urban area, or you live completely within an urban area far from wild lands, there are fairly simple things you can do to help protect your home.

  • Create and maintain that defensible zone around your home.
  • Clean the litter from the rain gutters
  • Replace vents in the gables and attic to 1/8 inch mesh screening. There are also new vent designs that are better able to keep embers from entering
  • Prune trees so they do not touch the roof
  • Prune trees so their canopies don’t over lap
  • Replace that section of wooden fence that touches the house with a metal fence.
  • Build a deck from nonflammable materials and do not store flammable objects under the deck.
  • Upgrade windows to tempered glass so that fire won’t break the window and enter the home.
Knowing where your home is most vulnerable to fire allows you to prioritize measures you can take to protect your home.Image courtesy of UCCE Master Gardeners
Plan your plantings in your defensible space

Many people resist creating a defensible space because they think it will look unattractive to their home. You might be surprised how attractive a fire-safe landscaping can be. There are many plants that are considered to be fire resistant. This doesn’t mean they will not burn, however their foliage and stems will not readily ignite nor significantly contribute to the fuel source. According to Firefree.org, Plants that are fire-resistant have the following characteristics:

  • Leaves are moist and supple.
  • Plants have little dead wood and tend not to accumulate dry, dead material within the plant.
  • Sap is water-like and does not have a strong odor.
  • Sap or resin materials are low

Some plants that are considered fire resistant are: Ajuga varieties (bugleweed), Dianthus species, Lamium, Sedum, thyme, or sempervivum spp., yarrow, Armeria, Bergenia, Coreopsis, Echinacea, blanket flower, sunrose, coralbells, daylilly, red hot poker, bearded iris, monkey flower, California redbud.

Both Los Angeles (tinyurl.com/LosAngelesCoWF) and San Diego Counties (tinyurl.com/SanDiegoCoWF) have brochures that list fire-resistant plants, however be aware that not all species listed will suit as well in our Central Valley. If you can find the plants in a local nursery, it is suitable to our area, or check with the Master Gardeners!

Consider California native plants

“Native species are usually fire-adapted, which means that their tops may burn off in a fire, but the roots develop to such an extent that they are the first to regenerate after a fire,” says Jeff Burns, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. Another advantage of using native plants to your area is they are usually very drought-tolerant.

Maintain your landscape

While all plants will most certainly burn in a wildfire, well-watered, green plants will resist fire better. Selecting plants that are less “messy” will add to your defensible space. Needles and leaves littering the ground are a good source of fire fuel. Remove dead wood from your trees and yard.

Taking a few steps to create a fire safe landscape and making a few changes within your home can make all the difference in keeping your home safe from fire.

The Master Gardeners will be live to answer your questions at two upcoming events: June 5, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Ace Hardware in Visalia; and June 12, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Luis Nursery in Visalia. You can contact them at 559-684-3325, or visit their web site at ucanr.edu/sites/UC_Master_Gardeners.

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