Learn > Landscape Professional
Building a fire safe landscape
Creating the site
- Design with fire safe principles
- Install the design so that it "works"
- Maintain the planted landscape to minimize the effect of fire
Not “if”, but “when”
“Not if, but when” is a common phrase in the fire safe community. Landscapes can be designed and installed to be fire safe, but without proper maintenance the designed features can revert to hazardous conditions. Similarly, without feedback from the installation crew, the designer may not ever know about hidden problems such as buried rock or old asphalt, compacted soils, anaerobic conditions, disease centers, or any number of factors outside their area of expertise. The maintenance crew might not know that you had to use a jackhammer to plant a particular tree, because you hit bedrock at 30 inches. Still, the designer, installer, and maintenance crew need to work together to keep landscapes wildfire safe.
Why plan ahead?(the benefits of design)
- Saves money
- Saves time
- Protects quality of life
- Saves lives
Why plan ahead?
Fire is not an isolated issue. Fire affects watersheds, air quality, soils, wildlife, plant communities, human life and human livelihoods, both individually and on a regional basis.
A successful project is the result of thorough planning, and thorough planning requires accurate information and a knowledgeable team. Your team will of course vary based on the project, but may include an architect, a landscape architect, a civil engineer, an arborist, a general contractor and often times a landscape contractor or vegetation management contractor.
A good team and thoughtful planning will save time and money during construction and maintenance of the landscape.
Smart planning saves homes and saves lives.
Understanding the site
- Wildfire risk zone
- Lay of the land
- Water sources
- Plant community
Understanding the Site
Start with a site analysis and gather data. Meet with the client to discuss their wants and needs. If the property is located in or near the Ojai Valley, then it's in an area where wildfire is a risk. More detailed information regarding the level of fire risk may be found on zoning maps, from your local planning or building and fire departments. Make an appointment with you local fire chief and walk the property together or call for an office appointment to review plans and requirements.
Become familiar with the lay of the land by identifying land forms and the degree of slope, canyon directions, and wind patterns – this will reveal the likely path of wildfire.
Calculate the distance from the local fire department, a hydrant and/or functioning water tanks. Review the condition of the roads and accessibility for emergency vehicles.
Identify potable water sources, including wells and water meters. Calculate the gallons per minute, the pressure and the volume of water stored if available. This information will be used for irrigation calculations and possibly for a backup water source in a wildfire event.
Identify the existing plant community including the flammability of existing plant material.
Site Plan – Zone 1
- Develop the Design
- Define Defensible Space
- Use wildfire-resistant materials and methods
Site Plan, Zone 1
The first plan to develop is typically the Site Plan which generally locates all elements of the design in a conceptual manner. Locate structures, roads, utilities, tree canopies and shrub masses. Property access and a turnaround for fire vehicles will be required. Your local fire department will provide specifications.
Start by defining the Defensible Space. The defensible space is the area surrounding a structure where landscaping is designed and maintained to decrease a fire hazard and to provide safety for firefighters defending the structure.
Zone I of defensible space begins at the structure and extends 30 feet out – it's the most critical zone, where you want to have plenty of hardscape materials.
Include fire-resistant materials, such as brick, stone, concrete paving, decomposed granite, non-combustible deck materials, and elements such as patios, and swimming pools.
Include fire-resistant construction methods. Plants should be low growing in this zone and have an open structure to reduce the potential fuel for wildfire. Avoid planting directly under structure eaves. Keep trees at least 10' from chimneys, and trim lower limbs of existing material, allowing 6' to 12' of clearance from the base to reduce fire laddering. Water ideally with overhead irrigation or inline drip hose to thoroughly water the area. This zone should be watered weekly to ensure that plants are hydrated and less likely to burn. The plant material selected should tolerate the frequent watering and provide low fuel volume.
Site Plan – Zone 2
- 30' to 100' from structures
- Thin and remove dead wood
- Use wildfire-resistant materials and methods
- Wide paths create mini-fuel breaks
- Use spacing to prevent fire traveling or climbing
Site Plan, Zone 2
Zone 2 is the area from 30 to 100 feet from structures. If there is existing chaparral growing in this zone, thin it by 50% as this removes 70% of the volume. Ideally this zone should consist of thinned existing chaparral or less frequently watered natives. Clear cutting or bulldozing will only create problems. Thinning implies cutting the shrubs to the ground but not removing the roots. This prevents erosion and soil disturbance which will bring up unwanted weed seed.
Target plants located near the structure for thinning and dead wood removal. Open up their structure by pruning lower branches. All trimmings should be ground and used as mulch in areas where plants have been removed. In addition, develop 4' to 5' wide paths and trails to provide mini-fuel breaks.
If Zone 2 is devoid of natural vegetation, plant and irrigate lower-growing species. The occasional use of taller shrubs is fine as long as they are planted in groups of three or less to prevent creating a large fuel mass. Leave about 10' between small groups or a large shrub.
Irrigate Zone 2 plantings once every 8 to 14 days during the warm months with overhead irrigation or in-line drip hose, where the mulch is wet but not over-saturated.
Site Plan – Plant Palette
- Low maintenance
- Reduced water use
Site Plan, Plant Palette
When developing the plant palette consider compatibility, flammability, low maintenance, and reduced water use.
Select plants that
store water in the leaves or stems
produce very little dead or fine material
possess extensive deep root systems for controlling erosion
maintain high moisture content with limited watering
grow slowly and need little maintenance
are low-growing in form
contain low levels of volatile oils or resins
and have an open loose branching habit with a low volume of vegetation
Avoid plants that
are highly flammable and retain large amounts of dead material within the plant
produce a large amount of litter
and those containing volatile substances such as oils, resins, wax or pitch -- such as Eucalyptus, conifers and ornamental grasses.
- Animal damage
- Buried rock
- Intense summer heat (which can sunburn plants)
- Armillaria root disease
- Root rot
- Winter flooding
- Soil limitations
Plants that are well situated, well planted, and well cared for are generally more resistant to fire.
Prepare the site for the installation, and be aware of limiting conditions. Here in Ventura County, we frequently encounter animal damage, buried rock, intense summer heat (which can sunburn plants), Armillaria root disease, Phytophthora, root rot, and winter flooding, among others.
Plant installation can affect the time to establish for many plants. Soil limitations may have lasting, limiting effects on the performance of trees and shrubs. By limiting available water, for instance, plant growth may be relatively stunted and thin. This thin, dry growth is more prone to fire damage. As the landscape plants burn, their embers often blow onto nearby structures. Well hydrated and resilient plants are the most resistant to fire, and so limiting soil conditions should be ameliorated before plant installation.
- Proper maintenance is crucial to wildfire safety
- Talk with the original designer or installer – they know what was intended.
- Well-maintained landscapes increase safety for homeowners, firefighters and neighbors
Landscape maintenance professionals are the front line in protecting homes and landscapes from wildfire. Talk with your client and with the designer, if available, so that you're maintaining the landscape according to the design, and according to fire-safe principles. Even where landscapes weren't designed with fire safety in mind, you can help minimize or even correct problems with the landscape.
Most importantly, fire safe landscapes are designed to protect structures. Firefighters may need to use your client's property to access and defend adjacent homes. By maintaining the landscape according to fire safe principles, you can help protect your client's property, firefighters, and nearby homes as well.
- Design according to location and best practices
- Install to ensure successful establishment of fire safe landscapes
- Maintain new, established, and aging landscapes appropriately.
Much of this material is common sense, but many in the landscape industry have pursued a "more is better" approach. More is not always better, especially in terms of wildfire safety. More plants require more water, result in more growth, and then require more maintenance. All of this increases costs for the owner, and reduces effectiveness and safety of the design.
"Less" can be elegant, clean, and simple to maintain. Less can be "smart", "green", and resource conserving. Less may even invite improved understanding of the unique resources of the Ojai Valley's diverse microclimates.
By understanding how to plan, implement, and care for "less", you give your client more opportunity to save on water, increase the wildfire resistance and resilience of their landscape, and help to protect adjacent homes and structures, all while reducing costs and emissions from power equipment used for maintenance.
ASLA, PLA 5728, PCA 73582 C-27 915632
studio landscape corp.
214 B Bryant Street
Ojai, CA 93023
P.O. Box 245
Ojai, CA 93024
Of course there is much more to learn. We hope that this has been a valuable introduction for you and your team.
Please feel free to go back to review any of these slides. Thank you for helping to create a safer community for us all