Building a fire safe landscape can influence how fire behaves and spreads. Implementing fire resistant plants with proper plant spacing and ongoing plant maintenance protects your home while providing habitat for birds, bees, and beneficial insects. Creating a fire smart landscape around your home doesn’t have to mean clearing brush down the soil. Instead, consider planting climate appropriate, drought tolerant California native plants and removing invasive species to create a more ember resistant space than can slow the spread of fire. 

What is fire smart landscaping?

Fire smart landscaping is a component of defensible space that concerns the vegetation types and spacing of the plants in your yard and garden. Fire smart landscaping is not the same as a well maintained yard. For a yard to be fire smart, it must contant fire-resistant plants that are strategically planted to reduce the risk of wildfire spreading to a home. Although no plant is 100% fire resistant, there are drought tolerant plants that have low flammability, but only when watered and maintained correctly.

Fire smart landscaping is different from a well maintained yard in that the plants used in fire smart landscaping have a low flammability and are spaced at a distance and height to limit ladder fuels. Similar to defensible space, fire smart landscaping recommends both vertical and horizontal clearance as well as non-combustible materials between plants to break up vegetation continuity. Remember to keep plants away from the house and windows clear. 

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Choosing fire-resistant plants for your home

  • Select high-moisture plants that grow close to the ground and have a low sap or resin content- plants with more waxes, oils, and resins is likely to be more flammable and release more heat energy when it burns
  • Plants that are regularly watered, reducing dead leaves/duff production.
  • Large, green trees and shrubs maintained without dead branches and clusters of dead leaves (e.g. coast live oaks that can act as a shield against flying embers).
  • Plants with high moisture content and easily bent leaves.
  • Plants with thick leaves.
  • Plants without fragrance.
  • Plants with silver or gray leaves.
  • Plant leaves without hair.
  • Plants that do not shed bark or branches reduce fuel accumulations at the base and require less maintenance. 

Defensible space zones and spacing between plants

Creating defensible space around your home can help reduce fire danger and protect structures. Keep in mind: 

  • Layout: the space between plants and other fuels/structures
  • Plants: High moisture, drought tolerant, low flammability and fire energy release
  • Maintenance: A well kept and monitored property without ladder fuels and debris piles

Zone 0 (0-5 feet): No fuel zone

  • Immediately surrounding structures
  • No plants or other fuels (wood debris, trash cans, mulch, etc.) that would catch embers and spread fire to your home.

Zone 1 (0-30 feet)

  • Prevent trees and large shrubs from touching each other or hanging over structures with at least 10 feet of spacing
  • Remove ladder fuels that can spread a ground fire to the crown of a tree.
  • Remove dead or dying trees. 
  • Break up continuous flammable ground cover with hardscaping and other fire-resistant features. Separating landscaping into islands of vegetation and the continuity of plants is separated.  

Zone 2 (30-100 feet)

  • Keep your yard clear of debris, trash, and dried grasses.
  • Mow grasses before 10 AM and avoid mowing on hot, windy days
  • Use low maintenance plants that require low water and pruning/upkeep.
  • Create both horizontal and vertical spacing between plants. Avoid laddering understory plants and space trees/shrubs at one or two times their mature height.
  • Periodically re-open gaps between plants as they grow closer together.

Ongoing Maintenance

Ongoing maintenance is key in creating a fire safe area. Be sure to: 

  • Install your California native plants in late fall/early winter.
  • Cut back/ dead head dormant plants
    • Many native California perennials can withstand being cut back in dormancy.
  • Eliminate ladder fuels (low lying tree branches and shrubs under a canopy allow fire to spread into tree tops creating dangerous fires).
  • Create horizontal and vertical spacing
  • Appropriately water your plants using smart irrigation and modify your water regime once plants are established (after 2-5 years).