Sept. 15 2009 12:00 AM
A beautiful home sits in a wooded hillside neighborhood on the outskirts of town. The owner loves it here. With tall pines surrounding his house, he has all the privacy he wants and not much grass to mow. His woods are thick with overgrown shrubs and fallen branches, but he likes it that way. It’s natural, he says. Or is it?

If it were really natural, wildfire would race through those woods every so often and clean the place out. And that’s exactly what could happen in this scenario. By disregarding fire safety when it comes to landscaping and maintenance, this property owner has put his own home—and the homes of all his neighbors—at risk.

Firewise landscaping, also referred to as “firescaping,” is the practice of planting and maintaining property using methods that help prevent the spread of wildfire. It involves creating a “defensible space” around the home—a space landscaped to minimize fuel and keep fire from spreading from one fuel source to another.

These concepts should be familiar to every landscape contractor who operates within fire-prone areas. As residential development pushes beyond the ’burbs and into the beyond, the number of landscape companies practicing firescaping within the wildland/urban interface—the area where neighbor hoods meet wilderness—is on the rise. These professionals play a key role in educating customers on simple landscaping practices that could someday save their home.

Good for business and community

Firescaping isn’t new, but in recent years word has been spreading. Consumers who follow the news are very aware of the dangers of wildfire and are receptive to learning ways to reduce risk. Many municipalities and homeowner’s associations (HOAs) recognize the threat and now mandate managing property to eliminate unnecessary fire hazards.

To meet the need, a growing number of landscaping companies are learning firewise principles and including these services among their offerings. Many have found it to be a profitable niche that also provides a valuable benefit to their community.

Common Ground Landscaping, Prescott, Arizona, is one of them. “It’s been really good for us,” says Frank Abbott, general manager. “The demand is there and it’s good to be out doing a nice job of maintaining nature while helping the cause.”

Landscape architect and contractor Owen Dell, owner of County Landscape and Design, Santa Barbara, California, agrees. As an author, educator, and co-host (with Billy Goodnick) of the popular Santa Barbara television show Garden Wise Guys, Dell has long been encouraging landscape professionals to take a leadership role in firescaping and other important public issues.

Dell first coined the term “firescaping” in the early 1980s when he got involved in a firewise demonstration landscape for the city of Santa Barbara.

“In 1977, we had an awakening with a big wildfire here in Santa Barbara,” says Dell. “It took out 225 houses in one night. This was shocking to me. Clients and friends lost houses. I began to realize that when fires move into urban and suburban areas, which they do more frequently now, it’s not about nature any more. It becomes a landscaping fire.”

When Dell looked around and studied the effects of fire, he noticed some key factors. “It became clear to me that ornamental vegetation had not been planted intelligently with respect to fire,” he says. “It had become a fire ladder that transferred fire from one plant to another until it reached the house.”

Defensible spaces

Getting rid of this ladder effect is one of the primary concepts of firewise landscaping. Creating a defensible space using a zone approach is another key concept.

A defensible space is an area around a home that improves its chances of withstanding a wildfire. It allows ample room for firefighters to access the structure in order to protect it, and it’s thoughtfully landscaped, using methods known to slow down wildfire and decrease its intensity.

Using the zone approach, areas closer to the house are landscaped and managed differently than areas further away. Think of a series of concentric circles extending out from the structure. The closer you get to the house, the lower the volume of flammable vegetation and other fuel.

While the management techniques vary from region to region (and even from one property to the next, depending on site conditions), a typical property might include four zones:

Zone 4 – This is the ring furthest from the house adjoining a natural or wild area. This area might display a more natural appearance, but it’s not neglected. It’s typically managed through selective thinning and the removal of highly flammable species. Downed trees are removed, branches are pruned up and tall underbrush is cleared to eliminate ladder fuels that can bring fire to tree branches and the tree crown.

Zone 3 – This is designed as a fire-resistant zone with low growing, low-flammability plants. In some areas it can include well-spaced, fire-resistant trees. To keep fire from progressing, vegetation is typically planted in islands separated by stretches of non-flammable mulch, paving, or healthy, short-mowed grass.

Zone 2 – This zone is kept even more fire resistant through irrigation. Usually only low-growing, high moisture plants are used here.

Zone 1 – This is the zone immediately surrounding the house and is designed to be the least flammable area. Only carefully selected, low flammability, high moisture plantings are used and they are well spaced to keep fire from spreading. Non-flammable mulch is used around the foundation and under decks. This zone is kept well-irrigated. Potential “wicks” are also identified and removed. Wicks can include anything that could potentially carry fire to the structure. Examples might include a wood pile next to the house or a wooden walkway that deck around a big ponderosa pine. Insurance companies are not okay with that anymore. When the fire came so close, it was a wakeup call for them, too. We’ve removed a lot of those.”

Study up

Getting involved in firewise landscaping is primarily a matter of education. One good place to start is with Firewise Communities ( Firewise Communities is a national multi-agency program that involves homeowners, community leaders, developers, planners and others in protecting people, property and natural resources from wildfire damage—before a fire starts. The organization’s website offers abundant information pertaining to basic firewise principles, plant lists and local resources.

Because recommendations and planting lists vary from region to region based on climate and other conditions, regional education on the topic is critical. Local fire agencies and extension agencies can help here.

The staff of Common Ground Landscaping completed a firewise landscape course through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. “We do a lot of HOAs and common spaces and we saw that there was a need for this,” says Abbot. “We decided to be proactive and get more information on it. We worked with Extension and the Wildfire Academy to get certified and went from there.”

Kenco employees participated in the same training.

“This puts you in sync with what the fire department is looking for and what HOAs are looking for,” says Knowles. “When you have this training, customers understand that you know what you’re talking about. You’re not just going to come in and hack away.”

It’s important to remember that firewise landscaping reduces risk; it doesn’t eliminate it. There’s a reason it isn’t called “fire-proof” landscaping. No landscape is completely fireproof. Every plant will burn if the fire is hot enough. But in neighborhoods that have been visited by wildfire, a well-maintained defensible space is sometimes the difference between homes that survive and homes that don’t.

Dell emphasizes the broad reach landscaping can have not only on fire safety but on other societal challenges including environmental sustainability, water conservation, watershed protection—even food production.

“I believe our industry has a real opportunity to do a lot of good,” says Dell. “The scope just keeps getting bigger. Landscaping can involve things that really matter, things that make a difference. There are so many real world needs we could be involved with. Firescaping is one of them.”