California forest fires are becoming more frequent, intense and devastating. While we used to prepare for the fire season every fall, we now have to work year-round to make our homes and gardens more fireproof.
Here are some simple and effective steps.
The most significant cause of home inflammation is embers, tiny pieces of burning material that can travel more than a mile from a wildfire with the wind. The embers can cause a fire when it splashes on flammable materials such as dry leaves in the roof ducts, near the vents in the basement and attic, or in the garden.
Create a protected space to reduce possible ignition from embers. These eliminate the way where wildfires can burn right into your home and create bumps between your home, your garden and the wild landscape. The protected space provides space for firefighters to put out embers and detect fires, and provides safe escape routes. Focus on three zones to create a protected space. Start with your house and find a way out.
Zone zero is the area of 5 meters immediately surrounding your home and other structures. Remove all flammable materials and vegetation in zone zero to reduce the possibility of direct flame contact from the ignition of the embers.
• Clean leaves and needles from roofs and gutters
• Remove tree branches beyond the roof
• Remove organic matter, including accumulated leaves, plants, mulch, planters, woody plants and climbing plants
• Replace the wooden fences next to the structures with metal
• Replace wooden gates, grilles, doors and grilles with metal
• Move propane tanks and wooden piles 30 feet away or store in non-combustible tanks
• Replace the fiber mats
• Store plastic waste and recycling bins in non-combustible containers
Zone 0 is the perfect place for walkways or paving, rocking or pebble paving. It may not be possible to remove all vegetation; consider sparsely planted, spaced, low-growing, non-woody stems without organic mulch.
Zone 1 is 5-30 meters from your home. Break the paths between garden beds, shrubs and trees with stone, gravel or soil so that if a wildfire strikes this area, the vegetation will not burn out the house or the crown of the trees.
• Use hard soil or gravel to separate shrub bushes, perennials and ground coverings
• Remove any dead debris
• Cut down trees by removing branches 6 feet from the ground to reduce ladder fuel
• Position the trees so that the crowns are at least 10-15 feet apart when they ripen
• Avoid planting trees in rows or hedges
• Prune plants regularly to remove dead or dying plant material
• Avoid overgrowing shrubs at the base of trees
• Add organic additives to increase the moisture content of the soil
• Avoid gorillas, which are highly flammable; use large chips instead, but as it can also burn, apply sparingly and continuously
Although all plants burn, some burn faster than others. When considering adding plants to Zone 1, choose ones that are water-intensive and ecologically healthy, well-maintained, and in good health. Good options include California natives and pollinator-friendly or drought-tolerant plants.
Finally, Zone 2 is all within 30 meters of your home. Reduce the height of the flame and slow down the spread of the approaching wildfire.
• Reduce the density of trees, shrubs and woody plants
• Trim tree branches at least 10 feet away from other trees
• Cut the lower branches with at least 10 feet
• Remove dead or dying trees and vegetation
• Remove fallen leaves, twigs, bark and small branches
The design of a protected space becomes even more critical if you live on a slope near a canyon or ridge. The fire travels upwards faster by preheating the vegetation from below, making it easier to ignite. If there is room, consider building a stone or concrete wall between the house and the most likely path to fire. The vegetation on the slopes should be at a low height and volume.
Visit marinmg.ucanr.edu/BASICS/FIRESMARTLANDSCAPING/MMG and firesafemarin.org/create-a-fire-smart-yard for more resources.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners, sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension, provides science and research-based information to home gardeners. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Attach photos to questions about plant pests or diseases. The office is closed due to incoming visits. Sign up for Leaflet, UC Marin Master Gardener’s free quarterly e-newsletter at marinmg.ucanr.edu.