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Firescaping: 5 essentials for protecting your home from fire




The Temecula Fire was burning near I-15 off the Temecula Freeway on June 4, 2016.
The Temecula Fire was burning near I-15 off the Temecula Freeway on June 4, 2016.
Courtesy Johnny in Temecula

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The Soberanes Fire near Big Sur has burned more than 53-thousand acres, destroying 57 homes and threatening thousands more. That fire is 35 percent contained.

When homes are threatened by wildfire, there's not much to do besides prepare to evacuate. 

But before fires ignite, fire safety experts say there's a way to protect your home and property - it's called firescaping.  

Take Two’s Libby Denkmann spoke with the man who literally wrote the book on firescaping and got the essentials on how to protect your building with smarter landscaping choices.

Douglas Kent is Ecological Land Management Specialist at Douglas Kent and Associates and the author of Firescaping: Creating fire-resistant landscapes, gardens, and properties in California's diverse environments.

Defend your property with fire-safe landscaping

Firescaping is essential to property owners, business owners, and even communities. It’s a set of design and maintenance guidelines that help a property defend itself from a conflagration [large, destructive fire].

Protect your home in landscaping "zones"

The zone theory is three concentric zones that radiate out from a structure.

The first zone is the Garden Zone: it extends 30 feet out and this is the area that has to stay fire retardant. It has to defend itself against firebrands- those flying embers that precede a fire.

From that you go into the fuelbreak. The fuelbreak’s main goal is to stop a ground fire. You’re really reducing a lot of the vegetation. There’s no deadwood.

And then further out from there, you go into the transition zone. There, you try and reduce the severity of the fire.

Use “fire retardant” and “fire resistant” plants  

Fire retardant plants are in the garden zone. These plants will not ignite when exposed to high temperatures. So those are like; Calla Lilies, Impatiens, and Wands. These plants tend to be a little more water dependent.

When you go further out in the transition zones and the fuel breaks, then you start using fire resistant plants. These are more California natives and Mediterranean plants and they may sizzle or spark or even ignite in a fire, but they quickly let the fire pass through their structure. The benefit with those plants is that once the fire does pass, they quickly resprout and help control the inevitable erosion that happens after a fire.

Be fire-safe AND drought conscious

When you look at the fire retardant plant list and the fire resistant plant list, the bulk of them are drought adaptive or drought resilient and can handle long periods without water. They are definitely compatible to the state’s goals for water conservation.  

Firescape according to location

If you’re on a slope, you’re going to have to extend the length of all the zones.

Here’s a good example, the Tunnel fire in 1992 that ravaged Oakland and Berkeley, those homes were stacked up on top of each other nearly 30 feet away, and they need a whole different type of firescaping. They have to communicate with their neighbors. They need more escape paths between properties and they have to share vegetation instead of stacking vegetation.

When you see video footage of the Oakland Fire, firebrands are preceeding it. So, houses are burning 200 yards ahead of the main fireline. - Because somebody didn’t clean out their gutter, or didn’t take care of their roof, or didn’t paint the eaves of their house, or left dead vegetation or recycled papers along the side of their house where they ignited. Once one home ignites, they’re burning at 3,000 - 2,000 degrees -The radiant heat of that will ignite anything within 20 feet of it which in some cases is another house.     

That’s why it's so important in urban areas to remove the dead stuff out of your roof gutters, and clean your roof, and keep your house painted, and remove the dead vegetation and dying branches. And frankly, water once a month or water every two weeks but keep a decent level of moisture on the plants in your landscape plan.

That’s really where the threat lies in those dense urban area. The state’s biggest fires happen in urban areas.

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview

Learn how to apply firescaping to your property. For more resources check out:

*Quotes edited for clarity.