Sept. 1 2005 12:00 AM

When Bill Butler and his wife returned to work after lunching together in their Palm Coast Florida home, they had no idea that they would never set foot in their house again. Butler, a landscape architect, was at work when he learned that a wildfire had broken out and was approaching his neighborhood. He and his wife raced home to save what they could, but after fighting streets jammed with cars and people, they arrived at their neighborhood only to find it blocked by a police barricade. Later, from a distance, the Butlers watched helplessly as their garage and house were consumed by flames. They lost everything that day and they weren’t alone. Two hundred and fifty homes were burned in that fire in 1985, the first “wildland urban interface fire” to hit Florida. “The fire really blindsided us,” says Butler. “We didn’t know this kind of thing could happen in Florida. We thought it only happened in dry areas out west.” In fact, wildfires are a natural component of every ecosystem in the United States. Structure loss from wildfires can occur everywhere wildlands and homes meet.

For many years the primary strategy for saving homes was fire suppression. Now there is a growing emphasis on accepting fire as a natural process and creating homes and communities that are designed with fire protection in mind. Landscape professionals play a pivotal role in this movement.

While there are many things that go into making a home firesafe, appropriate landscaping is one of the most important steps property owners can take. Contractors who learn and practice firewise landscaping concepts can help clients protect their homes and enhance their own business at the same time.

A Zone of Defense
To learn their role in protecting property, it helps for homeowners and contractors to understand the concept of fire-dependent ecosystems. “Every ecosystem in the U.S. is cleaned by fire at some point in its cycle,” says Judith Laraas Cook, project manager for Firewise Communities/USA. “Each one has a different point at which it is ‘ready’ to be cleaned. It’s an in inevitable part of nature so it behooves us as human beings to figure out how we can live compatibly with this process.”

Firewise is sponsored by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of wildland fire agencies that includes the USDA Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters. The group offers a number of resources for homeowners, contractors, educators, firefighters, and other stakeholders with the goal of reducing structure loss in wildland urban interface areas, areas where homes and wildlands meet. These efforts are increasingly important as urban sprawl continues to push development further into wilderness areas.

A textbook example of what not to do: notice the pergola near the house in the upper righthand corner and all the trees growing right up next to the homes.

While fire suppression is still a critical line of defense, experts point out that sometimes wildfires approach at such a high speed and intensity that relying on firefighters might be unrealistic. Often, it is the homeowner and not the firefighter who has the most impact in determining whether a home survives a wildfire.

“One of the most important things for homeowners to understand is that they have profound control over their vulnerability to wildfire,” says Laraas Cook. “Research has demonstrated that there is a 100-150 foot zone surrounding the home that impacts the home’s outcome in the event of a surrounding wildfire. If people modify this zone, they can break the path of the fire and save their home.”

Randall Ismay, of Water and Landscape Consultants in Laguna Niguel, California elaborates. “The space around your home can defend your property in the same way a moat defends a castle,” says Ismay, who serves as horticultural consultant for Firewise and is the author of the book Firewise Communities: Where We Live, How We Live.

“In fire-safe landscaping, what you do with plants is more important than what plants you use,” says Ismay. “There is no such thing as a plant that won’t burn. Although some plants may be more flammable than others, all plants will burn at some point.”

Dry brush should be cleared away from hillsides.

Plants and landscaping structures need to be installed in such a way that they do not create a path for the fire to reach the home. They also need to be maintained in a healthy and vigorous condition so they will not ignite as quickly.

Firewise divides the protective zone around the home into sub-zones that move progressively outward from the structure. The goal of these zones is to reduce available fuel.

• Zone 1 is a well-irrigated space that provides clearance of at least 30 feet on all sides for fire-suppression equipment. Plantings are limited to carefully spaced, low growing, and low flammability species.
• Zone 2 also includes well-irrigated, low flammability species that are kept low growing so they can’t throw flames to the house.
• Zone 3 contains more low-growing plants and well-spaced trees. Overall vegetation is still kept to a minimum to reduce fuel.
• Zone 4 is furthest away from the home and is where the natural area begins. Here vegetation should be selectively pruned and thinned. Highly flammable vegetation should be removed.

In all zones, leaf clutter, dead branches, and other easily ignitable material should be removed regularly. Ladder fuels – vegetation that serves as a link between grass and tree tops – should also be taken out so it can’t carry fire from vegetation to structure or vice versa.

Ismay also points out the importance of keeping wooden landscaping structures like fences, pergolas, etc. away from the house where they can act as a fuse from a surrounding fire to the house. He also recommends installing islands of plantings instead of a continuous flow of vegetation throughout the property. Breaking up plantings with driveways, gravel walkways, patios and other less flammable areas creates mini fire breaks and at the same time improves the appearance, design flexibility and access to the landscape.

The use of native plantings can also be an important tool, according to Ismay. “While some native species are highly flammable and therefore not appropriate to use in these areas, many natives help because they are water thrifty,” says Ismay. “It takes less water to maintain them at their lowest point of flammability.”

Homeowners have cleared the hillsides below their homes of flammable brush, but many still have trees too close to the houses.

Finally, Ismay urges developers, contractors, and homeowners to enlist the help of firefighting professionals in the design process. “I always encourage contractors and homeowners to contact the local firefighting agency and ask them to come out and look at their site. These are the people who have the most experience fighting the kind of fires that occur in your area. They can look at your site and point out any risk factors and tell you how you can change them.”

These are just a few of the basic firewise concepts that landscapers can apply in urban wildland interface areas, but there are many others. To learn more about firewise landscaping, contractors can contact local firefighting agencies, attend workshops offered by extension agencies and other community organizations, and use the resources provided by Firewise (

Ismay’s book, Firewise Communities: Where We Live, How We Live is one of the resources available to landscape professionals and others free from Firewise. This hardcover book, complete with coffee table quality photography, illustrates firewise homes with aesthetically pleasing landscape designs that function as barriers against wildfires. Information on design and plant material is described in detail to provide practical landscaping techniques to use in the defense zones around the home.

Overgrown hillside, with dangerously dry brush, below a home.

Community is Key
When you take a closer look at the zone of defense concept, you realize an important fact: in developments where homes are close together, the safety of your home depends in part on your neighbor’s landscaping. This is why a growing number of municipalities are embracing firewise practices as a community-wide responsibility.

Bill Butler is one of the biggest supporters of the community approach to wildfire safety, in part because of his own wildfire loss. “I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through,” he says. Butler now serves as landscape architect for the City of Palm Coast. After the fire in 1985 and another devastating wildfire in 1998, the city passed a wildfire mitigation ordinance that requires owners of vacant property to maintain vegetation according to firesafe practices to protect neighboring property owners.

“You can make your property as firewise as possible but if your neighbor isn’t doing the same thing and their property is close to your house, that isn’t really going to help you,” says Butler.

Palm Coast is just one of many communities that are responding to wildfire risk through a variety of mitigation efforts including community development planning, public education, demonstration projects, and regulation. Firewise Communities/USA is a national program that recognizes communities that have taken a coordinated effort toward fire prevention and readiness. The program shows people how they can make their entire community into a fuel break.

Landscape professionals are often drawn upon for advice, instruction, and support in these community-wide efforts. Contractors can get involved by participating in workshops, attending planning meetings, and joining fire safety councils. This kind of participation can provide a valuable community service while generating publicity for their business.

Homes with landscaping away from the houses and the hillside cleared of dry material.

Make your business firewise
Homeowners residing in areas adjacent to wildlands are becoming increasingly aware of the risk of property loss due to wildfire – either though their own experience or through the almost daily reports of wildfire evacuation and home loss in the news. As this awareness builds, the demand for contractors who are knowledgeable about firewise practices will continue to grow. Contractors who inform themselves and their clients can set themselves apart.

“Landscape professionals need to create a paradigm of safety for their clients,” says Randall Ismay. “To do this, they need to first help their clients realize and understand the risks they’re taking by living in a wilderness environment. Second, they need to show clients how to mitigate those risks. The point is not to scare the clients but to simply help them understand the role fire plays in their surrounding ecosystem and to show them how they can live there safely. As our cities move further and further into the hinterlands, contractors who inform themselves, who understand and use these concepts, have a definite edge.”

Jim Robinson, owner of Distinctive Terrascapes, agrees. Robinson, whose company is a primarily residential landscape firm based in the Colorado Springs area, has always lived in extremely dry climates in Arizona, Montana, and Colorado. Much of what he has learned about wildfires comes through life experience.

“We’ve had a tremendous problem with wildfires in the Colorado Springs area in the last few years,” says Robinson. “Many of the houses I work on sit right up in the hills. I make recommendations regarding fire safety to these homeowners even if they don’t bring it up.”

Robinson says that in addition to providing clients with valuable information, his recommendations help build trust. “By mentioning these things and making homeowners aware of what they can do to minimize risk, it reinforces the fact that you are knowledgeable and that you have a real concern that things will be done with the homeowner’s best interests in mind,” says Robinson. “This can give you a real leg up.”