Firewise – It Starts at Home.
For a fire to burn you need fuel–and firewise landscaping is all about decreasing, rearranging, and eliminating fuels. We decrease fuels by thinning and pruning forests and removing brush; rearrange fuels by choosing particular plant materials over others or disrupting their continuity with non-flammable surfaces such as concrete and rock; eliminate fuels by removing them from the landscape and maintaining that removal through the years.
Understanding the theory behind firewise landscaping, and why things are done the way they are, is an important first step in achieving your goals. Towering flames and huge columns of smoke are most noticeable when experiencing a wildfire. And though some homes and properties are consumed by raging flames, it is little things that set off 60% of home ignitions: embers that have flown in from up to 5 miles away landing in the bristles of a boot scraper on your porch; a smolder stick landing in your foundation planting of junipers; or a slowly creeping ground fire that reaches fuels near your home and ignites a deck piling.
By treating your home and immediate surroundings you give yourself a huge advantage over untreated properties. Crown fires will drop to the ground with the thinning of trees. Ground fires will not be able to advance when they encounter a hardscape element such as a rock wall. Embers will not be able to flare and ignite structures if they land on non-flammable surfaces.
What’s in it for you?
Wildland firefighters will often not protect homes that aren’t Firewise and don’t have adequate defensible space, both for safety reasons and because such efforts are unlikely to be successful. Fire and land management agencies cannot help prevent wildfire disasters without homeowner participation. If you live in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), recognize that your home and immediate surroundings belongs to you. This means that you, as the homeowner, have the primary responsibility for reducing your home’s vulnerability. Surrounding yourself with a lush, beautiful, and well-maintained landscape is your best defense against losses from wildfires.
Planning and Design of Firewise Landscapes
Using the results of your home fire evaluation as an inventory, you can now start planning and designing your firewise landscape. Take your time during the planning and design stage of the project – this is very important and will be key to your success.
There are two primary elements of your firewise landscape; the hardscape (semi-permanent to permanent features such as sidewalks, patios, driveways, and retaining walls); and the plant materials. These elements work together to form a treated area surrounding your home out to 100 feet that is most commonly known as defensible space.
Installing Your Firewise Landscape
You have a plan – now it’s time to make it real. Where to begin? Using the results of your Home Wildfire Evaluation and your landscape plan, begin to rank the things that need to be done to reduce your vulnerability to wildfire from the most important to the least and also the most expensive to the least.
You will quickly see that there are things you will need to wait to do, such as replacing a shake roof, because you currently do not have the money, the time, or the expertise. Other things will be easily identified as inexpensive or no cost to do and only needing a few hours or a weekend accomplish – these are the things to start with and do now.
Remember, the primary goal of a Firewise landscape is to decrease, rearrange, and/or eliminate fuels. Concentrate on the first 30 feet closest to the home and work your way out to 100 feet.
- Removing highly flammable shrubs like junipers from around the foundations of your house and outbuildings.
- Choose “fire-resistive” plant materials and concentrate plant materials in islands. Surround islands with nonflammable retaining walls and well-watered, short turf.
- Trim branches away from chimneys and utility lines.
- Clean debris from your roof and yard.
- Move firewood away from structures and store it on a non-flammable pad of bare soil, gravel, or concrete.
- Break up contiguous fuels. For example, instead of a wooden fence that is attached to wooden stairs that leads to a wooden deck you could replace the fence with chain link.
- Remove combustible enclosures from around home, outbuildings, propane tanks and woodpiles. Many times these are wooden fences used to hide the garbage or keep children away from the propane tank. Replace these with non-flammable materials such as steel, wrought iron, or chain link.
- If you have an irrigation system, make sure it is located in the correct place and working to insure optimal plant health.
- Eliminate ladder fuel configurations.
- Prune trees up so the lowest branches are 6-15 feet above the ground.
Beyond 100 feet
- Treat a minimum distance of 100 feet around your home. Remove highly flammable brush, ladder configurations, and dead trees and shrubs.
- Thin trees to a 10’ x 10’ or 12 ‘x 12’ spacing.
Maintaining Your Firewise Landscape
Yearly maintenance will keep your hard-earned firewise landscape effective.
Once you have established your Firewise landscape it will need yearly maintenance to keep it effective.
- Green turf is very fire resistive, so if possible, water your lawn through the summer.
- If you cannot keep the grass watered, keep it trimmed low, especially close to the house.
- Keep plant litter to a minimum by regular pruning, mowing, raking, and removal.
- Keep the roof and gutters clear of needles and other debris.
- Don’t allow plant litter deposited by wind to accumulate in corners or at the foundation of the house – burning embers may easily collect in the same places and ignite your home.
There are several ways to control unwanted vegetation.
Mechanical control. Cutting plants off at the base can reduce fuel hazard from shrubs. Many native Idaho shrubs will re-sprout vigorously, so repeated trimming is usually necessary to maintain reduced fire risk. Mid-summer is the best time to do this.
Livestock. Sheep or goats may also help maintain brush at a low level. Time grazing to late spring or early summer (not early spring) to minimize soil impacts. Later grazing also reduces plants’ ability to regenerate because of drier soils.
Herbicides. Several herbicide brands are sold to kill brush and are available in local home & garden stores. The herbicide labels will list plants controlled by the herbicide. Regardless of the herbicide, always read and precisely follow the label recommendations before purchasing and using it.
- If trees have just a few branches within 10 feet of each other, prune them back.
- If adjacent trees have many branches crowding together, it may be time to thin out a few more trees.
- Keep lawn and plant materials well watered and trimmed.
- Clean debris from your roof and yard.
- Prune dead branches as needed.
- Insects and disease should also be monitored and controlled as necessary.