Tipsheet: Fire prevention landscaping

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
May 29, 2009

With the fire season under way and a dry summer ahead, it's time to create a firebreak around your house and other structures on your property. Unfortunately, many of our homes have been built in fire-prone areas. Dry grasses, trees and shrubs planted near a home can burn quickly and intensify a blaze, making a fire more difficult to contain and control.

Here are ways to practice fire-safe landscaping.

Clean up. Remove all dead plants, trees and shrubs. Keep lawns mowed, grasses low, and shrubs pruned and maintained.

Increase defensible space. This is the area between your house and an oncoming wildfire in which you should alter flammable vegetation to reduce the threat of fire. You should clear an area at least 30 feet in diameter around your home and reduce fuel within another 70 feet by leaving space between plants and not planting under tall trees. Check with your local fire department to find out the fire hazard rating of your neighborhood, because requirements vary depending on your location and you could face fines for not complying.

Prune trees. Trim lower limbs to a height of at least 10 feet. Cut back all branches that overhang structures. Eucalyptus and pine trees are highly flammable and should be removed if possible.

Remove grasses and shrubs from underneath the canopy of your trees.

New plantings. When planting new trees, select fire-resistant varieties and avoid planting in masses — a spacing of at least 30 feet is recommended. Choose fire-resistant, drought-tolerant plants — and set up a water-efficient drip system.

Build breaks. Pathways, patios, borders or walls made from steppingstones, cement, decorative rock or gravel close to your home can help slow or break the path of a fire.

Mulch advice. Keep flower beds mulched to conserve water, but avoid thick layers of pine bark or needles, which are highly flammable.

Exit plan. Keep entrances and exits to your home and property clear of flammable material; otherwise, you may not be able to escape, and the fire department may not be able to get to you.

Water. Make sure your water sources, hoses and fire sprinklers are all working and easily accessible.

Contact your local fire department for complete details on fire safety instructions for your area. The department can also provide a recommended list of fire-resistant plants, trees and shrubs. More information is available from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. www.fire.ca.gov.