Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home’s Insurability

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home’s Insurability – The recent McKinney fire in California is just the latest example of the larger and more severe wildfires that have become alarmingly common throughout the West.

Good news! Fireproofing—designing yards to withstand fire—can protect our homes and neighborhoods by slowing the spread of fire.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home’s Insurability

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

But there’s a twist: several tried-and-true landscape design practices are proving to be significant fire safety risks.

Firewise Landscaping — Hwmo Blog — Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization

If we’re serious about protecting ourselves and our neighbors from fire, we need to rethink some of our landscape design preferences, discarding old practices that don’t take into account today’s increased risks and welcoming new approaches that give us the style and function we want , while improving our safety.

Below, we’ll cover the basics of fire-friendly landscape design: how fires are transmitted, the biggest fire risks posed by landscape design, and best practices for improving fire safety. We’ll also share some tips for achieving your personal design style while prioritizing fire protection.

Embers are small pieces of burning wood or debris carried by the wind before a forest fire. When the coal lands on a combustible material, it can start a new fire.

Embers can travel miles before an active wildfire and are responsible for 90% of home fires.

Landscape Architecture And Open Space By Riosimagines

Fire escapes (also called fuel escapes) occur when plants at ground level below the crown of a tree catch fire. As flames rise from below, they can spread to the tree’s crown, where strong winds and wide-spreading branches spread flames and embers great distances.

Fires spread in the direction of available fuel. In the landscape, this means that plants and hardscape materials that are easily flammable create the path that fire will travel most easily. The purpose of fireproofing landscaping is to stop these three methods of fire transmission.

Well-watered plants in this front yard avoid drying out, which in turn allows them to better withstand a wildfire. Image via Sunset Mag

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

Several common landscape design practices make it easier for fire to spread through yards and eventually burn houses and other structures.

Fire Wise Landscape Design — Sweet Smiling Landscapes, Landscape Design

In terms of damage to homes, the greatest fire risk comes from landscape features within the first 5 feet of the building—what fire safety experts call “Zone 0.”

Planting beds at the base of exterior walls is a staple of landscape design in a number of styles – you see foundation planting

Unfortunately, foundation planting essentially piles fuel next to homes. When foundation planting includes fire-hazardous plants such as dense shrubs or woody perennials, the risk of the structure catching fire only increases.

Plant trees far enough away from your home that they do not touch or lean against the structure.

How To Create Fire Resistant Landscaping

When tree branches touch or lean near a structure, they can easily spread flames and embers. They also drop their leaves onto roofs and into storm drains, making houses more likely to catch fire.

Arranging hardscape spaces adjacent to the home and planting areas further away creates a sheltered space around the home.

Some popular types are particularly flammable. Juniper, Italian cypress, arborvitae, bamboo and some (but not all!) ornamental grasses burn easily.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

Such species are routinely used along fence lines and adjacent to buildings—we’ve all seen massive junipers stretching across front yards, cypresses and arborvitae accenting corners and entryways, and bamboo screens lining the length of side yards. Although common, such practices are no different than building fire against the house.

Hardening Your Home

While there are many more fire safety measures to consider throughout the property, these Zone 0 factors pose the greatest risk to homes and should be the first thing addressed in a fire-wise landscape.

This social forecourt includes easy-maintenance plantings and fire-resistant paving and rock mulch around the building.

These tips will help you intuitively know if a particular species will withstand burning, but it’s always best to check with a trusted resource such as a local nursery or fire safety organization to confirm a plant’s fire resistance before putting plants in the ground .

Incorporating native plants into the design is a great way to reduce maintenance requirements; having evolved to thrive in local conditions, natives tend to require less maintenance than introduced species (they also offer exponentially greater habitat value).

Wildfire Defense Systems

Tip: Homeowners in the greater Bay Area who want to choose fire-resistant species can take advantage of Fire Safe Marin’s excellent list of

Cal Fire and Cal Poly University also provide fire safety information (and lots of other great information about trees) at their excellent

Succulents and other fire-resistant plants in raised containers pose less risk of flame transmission to nearby structures.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

Species selection and design choices are critical to fire safety, but how the landscape is maintained is often even more critical.

Fire Defensive Actions

The impact of maintenance on fire safety is a big responsibility for homeowners, but designers can help ease the burden by developing low-maintenance designs.

Custom plant containers can be used to define outdoor spaces while keeping plant material safely separated from structures.

This is a key concept in fire safety. When cleared of combustible vegetation and combustible materials, Zone 0 acts as a fireproof buffer. Maintaining a protected space is very effective in protecting homes from fire and should be a homeowner’s top fire safety priority.

Once a fire starts, it can quickly consume an entire planted area. Limiting the size of planting areas—planting “islands”—limits the area through which fire can spread quickly.

How To Prepare For Wildfires

You can limit the size of planting areas by introducing breaks in the hardscape. Walkways, patios, rock beds, and retaining walls block the advance of fire along the ground as long as they are constructed of noncombustible materials. Even a low patch of well-watered soil plants can be an effective firebreak.

Planting in smaller areas is especially important in zones 0 and 1. Planting areas can become larger in zone 2.

Even with fire barriers on the ground, fire can still spread from embers. It is best to maintain walkways and other firebreaks at least 4 feet wide to prevent embers from jumping to adjacent planting areas.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

To avoid creating a fire escape, trim trees so that there are no branches within 6 feet of the ground.

Is Your Home Firewise? — Snohomish Conservation District

When planting under a tree, leave a gap between the top of the plant and the lowest branches that is at least three times the height of the planting at ground level.

Like densely structured plants, fire is more likely to spread through densely planted areas. Designs that leave little breathing space between plants are less vulnerable to the spread of fire.

Dense planting designs tend to have a higher habitat value. Incorporating patches of fire-resistant, native ground cover plants between taller plants can be a way to maintain planting density without sacrificing ecological value.

In Zone 1, you have two organic mulch options: compost or composted wood chips (both resist fire better than other bark mulches). Inorganic mulches are also fair game in zone 1.

How Arizona Communities Are Preparing For Wildfires

In zone 2, areas of compost or composted wood chips can be used to set aside larger areas for planting.

As a vibrant alternative to mulching, try planting patches of fire-resistant groundcovers like Sedum between scenes of ornamentals.

The fire burns faster and more intensely up the slopes, especially the steep ones. The steeper the slope, the further away the bushes and trees should be to avoid the fire from being carried upwards.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

On level ground, trees should have 10 feet between the ends of their crowns, and shrubs should be spaced twice their height. These ratios double for slopes over 20% and triple for steep slopes over 40%.

Data About Structures That Were Destroyed By Wildfires In Each State

It should go without saying, but to reiterate, all of the above fire prevention practices should also include regular maintenance, prioritizing fire resistant species and avoiding fire resistant species.

Many factors weigh into fire safety decisions: the level of fire risk for your house/region, your style and functional goals for your landscape design, the level of habitat value you hope to provide, your personal risk tolerance.

Just because a homeowner wants to be safe from fire, he shouldn’t be forced into a landscape that doesn’t meet his goals.

Fortunately, designing with fire in mind is not an all-or-nothing proposition. On the contrary, fire safety can be seen as a gradient. Designers and homeowners should begin a project with an open discussion about fire safety to determine how high a priority it is and how diligently the homeowner is willing to implement fire safety practices on their property.

Fire Resistant Landscaping Ideas For Colorado Springs

If you ask us, anyone who lives in a bushfire-prone area should at least set up protection in Zone 0. We also advise doing what you can to make Zone 1 as fire-safe as possible.

Homeowners looking for a formal design can arrange plants in straight rows or geometric blocks, while leaving enough space between plants to avoid rapid fire transmission through the planting area.

Homeowners looking for a wilder, more informal feel can arrange plants in scenes by grouping small arrays of several species together to create a focal point, then allocating some breathing space around the edges.

Firewise Landscaping: Boosting Your Home's Insurability

Want dense planting? Don’t despair. Use patches of well-watered, ideally native groundcovers to fill gaps between larger ornamentals. This will give you the appearance of dense planting without the increased risk of fire. It will also reduce your costs in the nursery.

Sustainable Defensible Space

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