Sept. 1 2002 12:00 AM

At 10:00 p.m., fiery red images flash in the center of your living room. The anchorwoman reports ?thirty percent containment,? even though that percentage was 85 percent yesterday. On your television screen, families huddle together, watching their homes succumb to the first small flames. On the hillside looming above, a heart-wrenching wall of inferno. ?Move on out of here!? shouts the firefighter in his dingy yellow Nomex. The engine aims a weak spray of water on a roof. Useless. An entire neighborhood loses its possessions, its memories.

Watching via satellite as such a chain of events unfolds, many a landscape contractor has probably considered that one of these individuals on the news closely resembles a client. Maybe it was just a facial feature that put him in mind of someone else, or perhaps he recognized something in the eyes ? the affection for one?s home ? as one more million dollar house went down.

Last year, fires caught the attention of the nation when two factors ? migration from cities to less populated reaches and, ironically, a historically successful federal fire suppression policy ? led to great losses by homeowners in the wildland/urban interface, that zone where nature meets suburbia. This year, once again, that lesson is being driven home as this shapes up to be one of the worst fire seasons in recent history. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that, as of August 7, more than 4.7 million acres have burned in the U.S. By this time last year, that number was just over 1.6 million. And as more and more people filter into mountainside homes and deep-in-the-forest chalets, the collision of housing with wildfire will continue to be a challenge.

But where fire has always been a part of the ecosystem, it?s the manmade structures that are the relative newcomers ? dwellings, decks, yards and landscaping. ?Only about 20 percent of this problem actually has anything to do with fire,? says Jim Smalley, coordinator of the National Fire Protection Association?s Firewise Communities Workshop. ?This is not a fire problem. It?s a land-use planning problem.?

Across the board, landscape professionals, homeowners and fire department personnel are becoming aware of what careful planning contributes to the protected home environment. And in this regard, some landscape contractors whose territories are centered in wildfire-prone locations are becoming more conscious of potential forest fire threats as they approach a customer?s design, installation or maintenance.

Common sense solutions
Jeri Khajeh-Noori, Landscape Designer for Phillips Environmen-tal Services in Clearwater, Florida, offers several practical tips to contractors attempting to lessen clients? fire risks:

  • Pull mulch 12 to 18 inches from structures.
  • Trim trees and palms to prevent limbs or fronds from touching a roof.
  • Remove flammable debris such as fallen leaves or branches.
  • Install an automatic irrigation system and, when local ordinances or seasonal conditions permit, water regularly.
  • Cut back winter-dormant grasses and freeze-damaged shrubs in late winter.
  • Establish and maintain a firebreak 15 to 20 feet in width around the perimeter of a landscaped area, especially when the property is adjacent to natural areas.
  • Plant potentially flammable plants and trees ? slash pines, ornamental grasses, etc. ? as far from buildings as possible.

The region in which a client is situated will play a role in what the contractor can and should do. In eastern deciduous forests, for instance, a few hours spent with leaf blowers removing debris from yards and nearby hillsides will usually increase a home?s degree of wildfire safety significantly. In the mountainous, coniferous forests of the West and the pines of Florida and southern Georgia, however, wildfire is more likely to ?crown? (i.e., advance in the tops of trees), rather than stay close to the ground. In the plains states, wind can move fires almost as quickly across grasslands. In such cases, more time and planning are required to increase a landscape?s fire resistance.

Even if you?re located in an area prone to devastating brush fires, be forewarned: selling homeowners on the concept of fire-safe landscape practices may not be easy. Owen Dell, president of Owen Dell Sustainable Landscaping in Santa Barbara, California, reports a great deal of denial among homeowners with whom he?s had contact. While most landscape professionals are generally eager to take this concept and run with it, he says, homeowners will hardly even show up for the ?firescaping? workshops he occasionally conducts.

?My experience is mostly here in Santa Barbara,? says Dell, ?where I think we have had a couple of nasty fires, and people are pretty aware of the situation. I think that maybe we have a higher consciousness about it here than other places where there?s a little more denial of reality.? But even where fires have occurred, Dell reports that some people adopt a ?we had our fire, so we?re not expecting another one? mentality.

Nevertheless, a contractor with an understanding of fire-safe landscaping has something to offer prospects and customers, even if it?s only handled as a general concept and not a distinct service. According to Khajeh-Noori, for example, Phillips Environmental doesn?t necessarily think ?fire-safe planting,? because it?s second nature for them to design landscaping and utilize plant material that?s environmentally safe with regards to water conservation in the first place. Water conservation as a plant trait equals decreased chances for combustion.

Resources to educate
A few tools are available to both landscape contractors and homeowners who want to learn more about wildfire-resistant landscaping choices, and these include videos, brochures and Web sites. At, for instance, one can learn of upcoming Firewise Communities Workshops, order three landscape-specific videos or access the Firewise Landscaping Multimedia Web site. The Firewise program is under the auspices of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Contractors should add to their Rolodexes those other professionals in their communities who have a stake in wildfire prevention ? local fire departments, forestry divisions and so forth. Such agencies are likely to have hand-outs and checklists applicable to landscaping and perhaps will have someone designated as a homeowner educator. Your local extension service, too, may be able to tell you about the flammability of many common landscaping plants.

Says Dell, ?In most of the areas I?ve had experience with, the fire departments all have somebody who?s really devoted to this issue and is willing to come out to a job site, a home, a neighborhood association or whatever and make an evaluation without any charge. So, it?s good to interface with other professionals that are involved.?

Additional wildfire safety basics
When it?s determined that a client can benefit from the application of fire-safe landscaping principles, the contractor can begin to address certain key concepts in the planning or maintenance phases. Control of fuel densities, the reduction or elimination of flammable materials and the creation of fire breaks, for example, can all contribute to a home environment more resistant to wildfire damage.

Firewise Communities furthermore promotes the establishment of concentric zones around structures, Zone 4 being the outer area generally consisting of selectively thinned native vegetation and Zones 3 through 1 becoming progressively more fire-resistant, well-spaced and well-irrigated as the home is approached. Again, one?s locale will determine the relative sizes of these zones.

To prevent fires from crowning, consider pruning the lower branches of landscape trees, thus eliminating a ladder effect. Don?t prune to the detriment of a tree?s health or aesthetics, though, unless the risk of fire outweighs these values.

Obviously, stone or clay planter boxes and edgings will resist combustion in situations where intense heat and sparks may ignite wooden ones. Also choose fire-resistant mulch whenever feasible, and consider the addition of walkways or so forth to interrupt any fire that may move across a client?s property.

As mentioned in relation to Phillips Environmental Services, to maximize plant moisture is to minimize flammability. In this regard, plants with lithe and moist foliage will often be a wise choice for landscapes in neighborhoods with a high fire risk, as will irrigation systems. Plants that tend to accumulate dry, easily combustible materials such as pine needles or dead branches should be kept to a minimum, and well-spaced.

Weighing the natives
Quite often (but not always), naturally occurring vegetation patterns will provide a barrier to wildfire. Think about it: long before the U.S. Forest Service, vegetation in many parts of the nation adapted to regularly occurring fires, and these pre-settlement ecosystems might have included, for example, grasses beneath tall, clean-bole trees, conditions that decrease the likelihood of crowning. Simply stated, the elimination of native vegetation should never be considered a cure-all.

?A misgiving I have about all of this,? explains Dell, ?is encouraging people to build in native plant communities, and then destroy those plant communities in the name of fire safety, ruining what they came there to see, which was nature.?

According to Dell, 15 to 20 years ago, many fire departments advocated thorough brush removal, but in recent years, professionals have begun to see that this sort of approach is detrimental to slope stability, ecosystem stability and other environmental variables. Fire professionals today are more likely to recommend a lighter touch. ?What that means here in California,? he says, ?is, with the zone concept that we have, you thin the native vegetation out but you leave a lot of it. You leave as many root systems as you can. Basically try to manage the fuel rather than eliminate it.?

?That means cutting back fine, dead, aerial fuel, which is all the twiggy stuff up in the canopy, making sure that the plants are not physically touching one another in a continuous line, forming a fire ladder up to the house; managing moisture content; keeping tree limbs from overhanging buildings and houses; lifting the canopy of trees up to preferably ten feet from the ground so that fires don?t leap up into the trees and cause a crown fire; and evaluating the native plant community before you really make any significant changes.?
It?s as much about common sense as anything. Nine times out of ten, a landscape contractor can look at a property and, if thinking in terms of fire threats, can see where the dangers lie. A contractor who is mindful of potential fire danger, and makes the most of the resources and contacts in his or her region, may be all that stands between a homeowner and a wall of flames. In other words, a few simple fire-safe landscaping steps could prove priceless to a landscape contracting company ? but even more so to its customers.

September 2002