Want to save your home from wildfire? Think like a firefighter.
Look for places flames can catch. Clear space that sparks can’t jump.
When protecting property from fast-moving blazes, it’s all about creating defensible space. And the time to do that is before your home sweet home is turned to ashes.
For the people who fight California wildfires, this summer already has turned into a red-hot nightmare with dozens of homes and other structures destroyed.
Statistics provide a snapshot of just how bad this wildfire season already has become, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.
“At this time last year, we had recorded 2,480 fires and about 32,000 acres burned to date,” he said. “From Jan. 1 to July 15 this year, we’ve had 3,222 fires and more than 113,000 acres burned in California. That’s an almost four fold increase in acres burned – and we’re just starting our wildfire season.”
Our wet winter may have ended California’s epic drought, but it also brought an abundance of new fuel for fires.
“The aftermath of the rain was no reward,” McLean said. “It just produced growth exponentially in grasses and brush. Grass is like a fuse, igniting the rest.”
Add to that an estimated 102 million trees that died during the drought but still stand in California’s forests, just waiting to burn or fall over.
To help homeowners cope, Cal Fire – the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – created a new website and downloadable app that debuted this wildfire season. ReadyforWildfire.org puts a wealth of wildfire information at your fingertips including maps, text alerts, evacuation information and more. It also provides handy checklists on what to do before, during and after a wildfire breaks out within 30 miles of your home.
“We’re really trying to educate the public,” McLean said. “People need to think about increasing their defensible space.”
Firefighting philosophy has evolved with experience, he noted.
“We used to recommend that you have a 30-foot clearance around your house,” he explained. “That moved up to a recommendation of 100-foot clearance, but use that as your base. If your home is surrounded by heavy vegetation, go further out with your clearance. If your home is mid-slope, you need more than 100 feet of clearance below you because fire can move uphill rapidly.”
Although its crucial for property protection, few homeowners focus on wildfire safety when landscaping, say experts.
“Over the years, I’ve received very few requests for wildfire-safe landscaping, and I’ve been a landscape designer for over 14 years,” said Cheryl Buckwalter of Landscape Liaisons.
Buckwalter lives in the community of Auburn Lake Trails near Cool in the Sierra foothills. Wildfire is a constant threat.
“Each year, we have fire inspections in which we have to have created defensible spaces on our property, according to Cal Fire specifications, including cutting back tree branches that hang over or touch roof lines, don’t have tall shrubs right next to decks, remove dead plants, branches, brush,” Buckwalter explained. “I personally spent seven hours weed-eating our property so that any weeds were no taller than a couple of inches.”
Buckwalter did her weed-whacking early in the morning when the weather was cool – and watched out for sparks.
Specifically, Cal Fire recommends keeping grass under 4 inches tall.
“At that limit, it will burn more slowly,” McLean said. “It’s not that it won’t catch fire. I’ve seen green lawns burn.”
Instead of wood chips or other popular mulches, Cal Fire recommends using gravel or decomposed granite around trees and other plants.
“Embers can get into mulch, sit there and fester,” McLean said. “Suddenly, you’ve got more fire. You’re safer with gravel or hardscape.”
Density of vegetation is important for fire prevention, he added.
“You don’t want shrubs right next to trees,” McLean said. “You want to keep them separated. You want to trim limbs 6 to 10 feet off the ground, depending on the size of the tree. You don’t want to create ways where fire can easily climb up into trees or onto roofs.”
In fire-prone areas, Buckwalter incorporates wildfire safety ideas into her landscapes that are also watershed friendly. That includes creating shallow swales or terraces on slopes that slow water down and let it percolate into the soil. Healthy hydrated plants tend to be more fire resistant.
As a buffer against fire, she recommends creating space between plantings.
“I like to have meandering paths, about 4 feet wide between plant groups,” she said. “The paths can be a variety of permeable materials – allowing water to soak into the soil – such as decomposed granite, path gravel, flagstone pavers and other non-combustible materials.”
Plant choice is important, too. Some oily trees such as eucalyptus tend to burn faster and hotter than others.
Buckwalter has a long list of wildfire-resistant alternatives. “Some of my favorite fire-resistant plants – because many are evergreen and provide year-round interest – include coffeeberry, hollyleaf cherry, creeping mahonia, creeping barberry, western redbud, manzanita, chaparral currant, magenta rockrose, ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, strawberry tree, California fuchsia, toyon and California pipevine.”
Even if fire resistant, those shrubs can create a fuel source if too close together, McLean said. “You don’t want heavy patches of manzanita or other brush. That’s one reason the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County has been so bad. There’s just acres and acres and acres of brush all linked together.”
Knowing these tips is important in saving not only your home but your neighbors’ property, said Buckwalter. She tries to incorporate that advice into her river-friendly education programs and landscaping work – requested or not.
“We need for us all to be consistent, responsible stewards of our homes and environment,” Buckwalter said. “The smallest mistake can quickly risk the lives of our families and wildlife, and the health of our forests and air quality – the quality of our lives.”
More help against wildfires
Get more tips and other useful information on how to protect your home against wildfires at ReadyforWildfire.org, the new website and app created by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The site also includes a fire situation room with updates on current hot spots and evacuation orders.
The free app is available from both the Apple Store and Google Play. Besides handy checklists, the app allows homeowners to sign up for wildfire alerts and other customized notifications plus provides wildfire maps and incident reports.