On average, more than 100,000 wildfires light up the landscape each year in the western portion of the United States. It’s not uncommon for fire to burn through more than two million acres across states like California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and throughout the West and Southwest.
A wildfire can race through an area at around 14 miles per hour, which means they can do an incredible amount of damage to your property in a small period of time. Taking steps to protect your home from fire means not only planning, but also planting for the future. That’s where fire-safe landscaping comes in.
Fire-safe landscaping focuses on creating a defensible space around your home with fire-resistant plants, trees and shrubs. Choosing the right kinds of plants and spacing them with inflammable materials, like rock walls and brick paths, can greatly reduce your property’s vulnerability to fire. This guide offers you resources for:
- Grasping the basic concept of fire-safe landscaping
- Understanding types of fire-resistant plants
- Ways to fireproof your existing landscape
- Techniques for enhancing a fire-safe landscape
What is fire-safe landscaping?
Installing fire-safe landscaping throughout your property does not mean tearing out all of your existing vegetation. To the contrary, a complete removal could lead to a whole host of other serious problems, such as erosion and landslides. While it is important to create a plan for removing extremely flammable plants, creating a fire-safe landscape ultimately means creating a balance between your current flora, and new plants that will burn more slowly or are less likely to ignite in the first place — often called fire-resistant plants.
If you live in an area where the threat of fire is a very real, or maybe even a very common threat, you’ll want to think strategically about how you plant and maintain the vegetation around your home. Some elements are easy to identify and resolve on your own while others may warrant hiring a landscaping professional. You can make a significant impact in reducing the risk of fire spreading to your own property or your neighbors’ homes with the right mindset about landscaping. Landscaping kept free of dead and dry plant materials, ideal kindling for fire, along with fire-resistant plants creates defensible space. This provides a protective radius around your home that not only guards against wildfires, but also gives firefighters a safe area to work from when defending your home surroundings against a fire.
What are some common fire-resistant plants?
Making your landscape fire-safe means making it harder for fires to find fuel to burn and paths to keep moving along. While a completely fireproof plant is simply a myth, there are many kinds of plants that are less flammable than others. Here is a list of common fire-resistant plants. However, before you start digging, take the time to check out their hardiness zones so that you can make sure you’re planting vegetation that thrives in your climate:
- Cherry: Not all, but many, varieties of cherry trees are resistant to fire (zones 3-9).
- Coneflower: Pollinators love this drought-tolerant plant (zones 3-9).
- Coralbells: Birds will flock to this low-maintenance perennial (zones 3-9).
- Hawthorn: With its soft white blooms, this tree can reach about 30 feet tall.
- Hens and chicks: Xeriscapes look amazing with this easy-to-maintain ground cover (zones 4-8).
- Honeysuckle: A sweet-smelling vine that resists fire and attracts hummingbirds (zones 4-9).
- Lilac: With a height of up to 20 feet tall, this flowering shrub also has a fragrance that delights the spring air (zones 2-9).
- Maple: A popular tree that is common to many yards (zones 3-9).
- Poplar: An ideal shade tree that loves the sun and grows rapidly (zones 3-9).
- River birch: Glossy green leaves that are resistant to both fire and birch borers (zones 4-9).
- Waxflower: Thriving in hot, dry weather, this shrub requires minimal maintenance (zones 10-11).
- Wooly thyme: Use this plant as ground cover and in the kitchen (zones 4-7).
To truly know which plants are right for your area, consult a gardener in your area or a local landscape architect. Landscaping can be done on your own and with a reasonable budget, but if you plant vegetation that isn’t a fit for your zone, you’ll just be wasting time and money. You may find that the cost to hire a landscape designer is well worth it to create a defensible space you know will last.
What are some ways to fireproof my existing landscape?
Fire-safe landscaping happens year-round, not just before, during or after wildfire season. Remember, dried and dead plant matter can fuel a wildfire, so think about cutting and pruning plants in the winter. This way, they can decompose during the wet season, which reduces the amount of dry, dead material available to fuel a fire. But be careful not to overdo it. Clear-cutting the vegetation on your property is an aggressive tactic that can do more long-term damage. Slowly and methodically identify and eliminate the fire-prone plants in your yard, and make a plan for their removal. You’ll want to create steps for replacing species with dry leaves, dense foliage, high oil and resin levels, shaggy bark, and fine, needle-like leaves.
Other ways to fire-safe your current landscape include:
- Prune trees so the lowest branch is no fewer than eight feet from the ground.
- Remove flammable plants that are within 30 feet of your home.
- Keep firewood stacked at a safe distance from plants, buildings and flammable materials.
- Keep grass and weeds short.
- Reduce ladder fuel — bushes or tall grasses next to trees that can propel a fire upward.
- Understand how wind and seasonal weather can impact your property.
The best way to effectively fireproof your landscape is to understand how your vegetation interacts with fire, water and neighboring plants. Be thoughtful with the kinds of foliage you plant and stay on top of necessary maintenance.
What are some techniques for enhancing a fire-safe landscape?
There are many ways to grow a beautiful, even luscious, fire-safe landscape. When it comes to plants, you want to think about spacing. Hardscaping, irrigation and water are ways to create fire-resistant space between plants and around your home. You can protect your property and the surrounding areas from spreading flames with fire-safe techniques like:
- Planting trees at least 10 feet away from each other and at least 30 feet away from your home.
- Grouping plants of similar height and watering needs to slow the spread of fire.
- Using herbicides with caution.
- Choosing a drip irrigation system, both conserving water and promoting healthy plants, which means they’ll burn less quickly.
- Creating breaks in fuel for fires with paved walkways, concrete patios, rocks and walls.
- Installing water features like ponds and fountains.
- Using inorganic mulch to prevent erosion.
Even if wildfires aren’t common in your area, utilizing some of these fire-safe landscaping techniques can be extremely useful to help with water conservation and prevent damage from fires that start by other means, like an electrical fire in your neighbor’s house or embers from a fire pit or grill.
Fire-safe landscaping doesn’t just protect your property, but also the homes — and lives — of your neighbors, local wildlife and native plant life. When you make fire safety a priority in your home, you can help enhance property values, reduce insurance costs and claims, and build a stronger, safer community.