‘Firescape’ to make home safer from wildfires

From Mike Skipper
Winston county extension director

“If a wildfire came through your neighborhood or community, could
your house survive on its own?”

I know that’s a dramatic question, but one we need to consider when
living in an environment that has a high potential for wildfires.
It’s extremely important to remember that a wildfire is simply any
fire that is out of control, and in the rural environment that we
live in and with the weather patterns that we are subject to, all of
us in Winston County are at risk in regards to wildfires.

“Firescaping” is a landscape design that reduces houses and property
vulnerability to wildfire. The goal is to develop a landscape with a
design and choice of plants that offers the best fire protection and
enhances the property. The idea is to surround the house with
landscape materials that are less likely to burn. The appropriate
manipulation of the landscape can make a significant contribution
toward wildfire survival.

Firescape takes traditional landscape functions and combines that
with a design that reduces the threat from wildfire. It does not
need to look much different than a traditional design. Through
proper plant selection, placement and maintenance, we can diminish
the possibility of fire ignition, lower fire intensity, and reduce
how quickly a fire spreads, therefore increasing a homes
survivability. In firescaping, plant selection is primarily
determined by a plants ability to reduce the wildfire threat. For
example, a traditional foundation planting using junipers would not
be a viable solution in a firewise design since they are highly
flammable. Minimize the use of evergreen shrubs and trees within 30
feet of your home that contains high levels of oils, resins and waxes
due to the fact that they burn with great intensity.

Within the same areas, ornamental grasses should be used sparingly
because they can be highly flammable as well. When selecting plants,
choose plants that have a high moisture content such as bigleaf
hydrangeas, gardenia, oakleaf hydrangeas and anise, just to name a
few. Most plant material that fall into the group of low
flammability are plants whose stems and/or leaves are not resinous,
oily or waxy. Deciduous trees are generally more fire resistant than
evergreens because they have a higher moisture content when in leaf,
but a lower fuel volume when dormant.

Placement and maintenance of trees and shrubs is as important as
actual plant selection. When planning tree placement in the
landscape, remember their size at maturity. Keep tree limbs at least
15 feet from chimneys, powerlines and structures. Specimen trees can
be used near a structure if pruned properly and well irrigated.

Firescape design uses driveways, lawns, walkways, patios, parking
areas, areas with inorganic mulches and fences constructed of
nonflammable materials such as rock, brick or cement to reduce fuel
loads and create fuel breaks. Fuel breaks are important in every
firescape design.
Water features, pools, ponds or streams can be used also as
firebreaks. Whether or not a site can be irrigated or not will
greatly influence the location of hardscape (concrete, asphalt, wood
decks, etc.), plant selection, and placement. Prevailing winds,
seasonal weather, local fire history and the characteristics of
vegetation surrounding the site are additional important considerations.

The 30 feet closest to a structure will be the highest water use area
in the firewise landscape. This is an area where highly flammable
fuels are kept to a minimum and plants are kept green throughout the
season. Use well irrigated plant materials such as perennials here.
Another great choice is low growing or non-woody deciduous plants.

Lawn is soothing visually, and is also practical as a wildfire safety
feature, but extensive areas of turfgrass may not be right for
everyone. Some good alternatives include clovers and/or ground
covers. Rock mulches in select areas might be a consideration.
Remember patios, masonry and rock planters are excellent fuel breaks
and increase wildfire safety. Be creative with rock boulders,
riprap, dry streambeds and other sculptural inorganic elements when
designing a landscape for fire safety. Remember, less is better.
Simplify visual lines and groupings. A firewise landscape lets
plants and garden elements reveal their innate beauty by leaving
space between plants and groups of plants. Most importantly in
firescaping is that open spaces are more important than the plants.

For more information on firewise and the concept of firescaping,
please contact Mike Skipper at 662- 773-3091.