“Some say the world will end in fire.” Robert Frost
A running crown fire came rolling down the hillside toward our Lake County mountain cabin, moving faster than any human could run. All exits were blocked. Trees vaporized. Sixteen civilians trapped in the valley were being gathered in the meadow around our house. This acre of lush green grass would be the safety zone, everyone’s last hope of survival. Ninety firefighters had been spread out along the roads, trails, and hillsides in the fire’s path. Their orders were to stay put until the fire was upon them, then to light a backfire and escape to our meadow.
The energy released was a hundred times that of a normal forest fire, with an explosive force nearing the intensity of a small atomic bomb. Everyone prayed. My sister and her husband said their goodbyes. Death seemed seconds away. Besides being a farmer, our Dad had been Captain of our volunteer fire department for forty-six years. Dad built the safety zone. “Daddy,” my sister prayed, “please don’t let us die like this.”
Then, almost imperceptibly, the roar began to diminish. The fire continued to rage for fourteen days in nearby canyons, ultimately burning over eighty-two thousand acres. At the time, it was the second-worst firestorm in United States history, the subject of national training videos for firefighters and showcased on an episode of the TV series, 20/20.
I chronicled this epic true story in my book, Be the Star You Are!® 99 Gifts for Living, Loving, Laughing, and Learning to Make a Difference. The chapter is appropriately titled The Gift of Survival. (First Editions available from http://www.CynthiaBrian.com/online-store).
When a town called Paradise is transformed into burning hell incinerating everything in its path within twenty-four hours and becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California and United States history, it is prudent for Lamorindans to make fire safety a priority.
A few months ago an Orinda resident reached out to me asking if I would write an article on how to landscape with fire prevention in mind. Melanie and Ken Light had contacted Orinda Fire Chief Dave Winnacker to find out how to become a Fire Wise neighborhood. Being fire wise is dependent on everyone in a neighborhood being diligent about keeping their property fire safe because fires do not honor property lines. If one home’s landscape is pristine and the neighbor next door has overgrown bushes, brush, or low hanging trees, all of the properties become indefensible.
Lamorinda is rural, wooded, and has minimal escape routes. Many of the plants and trees growing throughout our area are highly flammable including pines, cypress, cedar, fir, bamboo, acacia, juniper, Pampas grass, rosemary, ivy, arborvitae, miscanthus, and eucalyptus. Heat moves up and many homes are on hills. Fire speed and severity is stronger on slopes where vegetation management is crucial.
Just as there is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, a fire-proof plant is a myth. Under the right conditions, every plant will burn. Referring to a plant as “fire safe” means that it tends not to be a significant fuel source by itself. Some plants chemical compositions resist heat and combustion. It is critical to keep plants around our homes well maintained and pruned as a fire protection tool. The closer plants are to the house, the more care is needed.
Firescaping is simply a landscape design that reduces house and property vulnerability to wildfire. While enhancing the beauty of the property, we surround the house with plants that are less likely to ignite and create a defensible space.
Characteristics of Highly Flammable Flora
ϖ Dry and dead leaves, twigs, branchesϖ Abundant, dense foliageϖ Needles
ϖ Low moisture foliageϖ Peeling, loose bark
ϖ Gummy sap
ϖ Leathery or aromatic leavesϖ High resin, terpene, or oil contentϖ High, uncut or dry grasses
Characteristics of Fire-Resistant Flora
ϖ Hardy, slow growing plants that don’t produce litter or thatchϖ Native plants that are drought tolerant with internal high water content. Generally, California natives are more tolerant of deer and fire.
(see Nature’s Natives: April 17, 2019, https://www.lamorindaweekly.com/archive/issue1304/Digging-Deep-with-Cynthia-Brian-for-April-Natures-Natives.html)
ϖ Trees with thick bark that restrict the growth of invasive shrub species and hardwood trees such as walnut, cherry, maple, and poplar are less flammable. Deciduous trees and shrubs are generally more fire resistant because they have a higher moisture content when in leaf, lower fuel volume when dormant, and usually do not contain flammable oils.
ϖ Supple, moist leaves with little to no sap or resin residue.
ϖ Low growing ground covers.ϖ Bulbs.
How to Create a Fire-Resistant Landscape:
ϖ Include fire-resistant features such as pavers, bricks, pavement, gravel, rocks, mulch, dry creek beds, fountains, ponds, pools, and lawns. Water features including ponds, streams, and pools can be helpful fuel breaks.
ϖ Select high moisture plants that grow close to the ground with a low sap and resin content. (See an included list of plants, shrubs, and trees)ϖ Maintain all plants and lawns. Clover, groundcovers, and grasses that are kept low and green through irrigation are excellent alternatives. Mow, prune, water, and space appropriately.
ϖ Leave space between plants.ϖ Minimize the inclusion of evergreen trees within thirty feet of structures. Clear debris and understory. Have clearance of all trees within twenty feet of chimneys.
ϖ Remove invasive species or swaths of flammable plants including ivy, rosemary, broom, and juniper.ϖ Moist mulch, rocks, or gravel can be used for firescaping. (Bark and leaf mulch can ignite unless sufficiently wet. Usage not recommended near structures.)
ϖ When planting trees, identify the tree size at maturity. ϖ Prune trees carefully to remove the possibility of fire laddering.
ϖ Arrange plantings in clusters and islands, with those near structure being smaller. ϖ Consider the combustibility of decorative features such as gazebos, fences, sheds, porches, and junk areas. Keep appropriate clearance to reduce the threat of burning embers.
ϖ Bare ground is not recommended due to soil erosion.
General Rules of Fire Safety
HEED the checklist from our local fire departments to create a defensible space around your home. To reiterate fire district recommendations:
ϖ Prevent embers from igniting your home by clearing leaves, needles, and debris from gutters, eaves, porches, and decks.
ϖ Mow grasses and weeds.
ϖ Keep your garden watered.
ϖ Prune tree limbs to keep the lowest branches 6-10 feet from the ground.
ϖ Reduce “fire fuel laddering” by not allowing bushes or trees to touch one another.
ϖ Keep combustible materials 15-30 feet away from structures.
ϖ Maintain your property and be alert for any fire danger.
For further safety tips visit http://www.mofd.org/fire-prevention/abatement
Through proper plant selection, placement, and maintenance, we are able to diminish the possibility of ignition, lower fire intensity, and reduce the spread, helping our homes to survive the blaze. A fire-resistant landscape reduces the risk to our homes while enabling firefighters a place to defend our structures.
National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org
Moraga Orinda Fire District: http://www.mofd.org
Fire Safe Marin (We are not in Marin, but this is a great resource): http://www.firesafemarin.org
Pacific Northwest Fire Resistant Plants: http://www.firefree.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Fire-Resistant-Plants.pdf
University of California Cooperative Extension: https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Prepare/Landscaping/Plant_choice/
Las Pilitas Nursery (although this nursery is in Santa Margarita it has the best website that gives burn times for various plants. Plus it also has deer resistant information as well.)https://www.laspilitas.com/easy/deerfire.htm
Sign Up for Alerts:
Contra Costa County Community Warning System: https://cwsalerts.com
Alerts for Your Specific Area: http://www.nixle.com
Sample Listing of Plants that are Fire-Resistant
(I reiterate, NO PLANT is fire-proof. Maintenance, pruning, watering, spacing, location are all extremely important elements for fire safety.)
Bulbs (tulips, daffodils, iris, hyacinth, freesia, etc. Cut stalks to the ground when leaves are dry)
Yellow or Purple ice plant
Red hot poker
Purple robe locust
Fruit trees (varieties of cherry, plum, pear, peach, apricot)
Manzanita (prune without dead wood)
Harry Houdini wrote, “Fire has always been and seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of the elements.” Use your common sense. If you need additional help, consult a professional. Contact your fire department for a Fire Wise walk. Invite neighbors to a meeting. Come talk to me at the Be the Star You Are!® charity booth at the Moraga Community Faire on Saturday, May 11th from 11-3pm. Buy garden gifts for Mother’s Day. (Http:/www.BethestarYouAre.org/events)
Fires are in our future. Hopefully, we won’t require a green meadow safety zone for survival, yet we need to be prepared. Make firescaping an ongoing conversation.
In the meantime, get out to weed, water, prune, and maintain. Do what you can to be fire safe.
Happy Gardening. Happy Growing. Happy Mother’s Day!
Cynthia Brian, The Goddess Gardener, raised in the vineyards of Napa County, is a New York Times best-selling author, actor, radio personality, speaker, media and writing coach as well as the Founder and Executive Director of Be the Star You Are1® 501 c3.
Tune into Cynthia’s Radio show and order her books at www.StarStyleRadio.com.
Buy a copy of her new books, Growing with the Goddess Gardener and Be the Star You Are! Millennials to Boomers at www.cynthiabrian.com/online-store.
Hire Cynthia for projects, consults, and lectures.
Donate to Fire Disaster Relief via Be the Star You Are!® 501 c3 at www.BethestarYouAre.org