Firescaping

‘Firescaping” is a word invented for those who are prepared to live near the wilderness without illusions. If you make your home in close proximity to chaparral – the dominant ecosystem in the greater Los Angeles area – forget about tranquil, bucolic living. During summer and, especially, fall, you must always have the possibility of conflagration in the back of your mind.
I once talked to a firefighter who noted that, ideally, landscaping around a chaparral home would exclude all plants – except a closely mowed lawn – to a radius of 100 feet in every direction. What an irony! Here you want to go back to nature, yet, in order to be safe, you have to exclude native plants from your immediate surroundings and plant a lawn. A well-watered lawn is not only an effective barrier to fire but can serve as a staging area for firefighters and their equipment.
The firefighter with whom I spoke was probably erring on the side of caution, since much of the literature on firescaping, including that published by fire departments, allows for landscaping in fire-prone areas near houses and other structures. However, within 30 feet of any building, the only completely acceptable plants, besides a lawn, would be succulents such as agave, aloe, jade plant and cactus. If you live at the top of a steep slope, especially above a canyon, you will need to landscape with succulent ground covers to a distance of 100 feet away from your home because fires on slopes, when whipped by winds, are undeterred by vegetation of any kind, with the possible exception of succulents.
On flat ground, from a distance of 30 to 60 feet out from a structure, in addition to succulents, you can add ground cover plantings that build little fuel – such as vinca, freeway daisy (Osteospermum) or ivy – as well as clumps of annuals, wildflowers or water-retaining native shrubs such as laurel sumac. Flower clumps and shrubs should be separated, on every side, by 20 feet of nonflammable mulch such as gravel or colored stones. As you reach a distance of 60 to 100 feet away from a structure, or further on sloping terrain, you can plant trees as long as they are separated from each other by more than 20 feet. Mature shrubs and trees should have all branches pruned to a height of 10 feet. Avoid resinous plants such as pines, junipers, cedars and eucalyptus, and do not allow leaf litter to accumulate.
In truth, firescaping is of little value without common-sense selection of building materials. It is a fact that burning embers from a chaparral blaze can drift several thousand feet in the air. If one of these embers lands on a wood-shingle roof, or on a wooden deck or fence next to a house, even the most carefully considered firescaping will be irrelevant.
An attractive firescape would be a study in creative hardscape design. Planted areas would be separated by brick or flagstone borders, decomposed granite walkways and water features such as rectangular fountains and lily ponds. Fences and decks would be made of nonwoody materials. Colored gravels and stones would fill those 20-foot firebreaks recommended between individual shrubs and trees.

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