Its important to remember that people are not completely helpless when it comes to protecting themselves and their homes from wildfire. While the threat of wildfire is present in any area where people share living space with wilderness, there are many things homeowners and entire communities can do to help reduce risk.
Firewise landscaping is one of them. Firewise landscaping is the practice of designing and maintaining the area around the home in a way that gives it the best chance of surviving a wildfire. It promotes the concept of creating a 'defensible space' around the home, a space designed to minimize the risk that a nearby wildfire will spread to the home and ignite it.
The concept is part of a rapidly growing movement promoted by the Firewise Communities program. Firewise Communities is a national, multi-agency effort that involves homeowners, community leaders, planners, and others in protecting people, property, and natural resources from the risk of wildfire. The emphasis is on defending homes and communities before a fire ever starts.
Landscape professionals in fire-prone regions play a pivotal role in this effort. By educating themselves and their customers on appropriate landscape design and maintenance methods, they can help reduce risk to the entire community.
A community effort
The Firewise Communities program was born out of a need to address a growing problem in this country. As new development pushes its way further from urban centers, many homeowners find that the wilderness is now in their own backyards.
They are living in what firefighting circles deem the 'wildland/urban interface' or WUI. There are risks involved in living next to the wilderness. Wildfire is one of the biggest. "Wild land fires are burning into communities with greater impact than in years past," says Judith Laraas Cook, program manager for Firewise Communities/USA. "We have a growing population, and expansion tends to occur in previously undeveloped, natural areas. These areas often have a history of frequent wildfires."
Wildfire is a regular, natural, and even desirable component of many ecosystems. But in the wildland/urban interface, fire can spell disaster. When a wildfire approaches a neighborhood, threatening dozens of homes simultaneously, firefighters simply don't have the resources to protect each one.
The focus of Firewise is on creating communities that are compatible with fire-prone ecosystems and on helping homeowners protect themselves independently of fire fighting efforts. A Firewise community is one that takes a proactive, team approach to preventing the ignition of homes in the event of a fire.
"It's important that we understand the history of wildfire within these natural areas and that we adjust our lives to accommodate these ecosystems," says Laraas Cook. "We can do this. We can live in these areas. But we have to be sensitive to the things we need to do to protect our communities."
Stopping fire in its path
Creating landscapes that don't add fuel to the fire is one of the most important steps to take. The landscaping practices recommended by Firewise Communities are guided by research into the factors that actually cause structures to ignite when a fire approaches.
According to this research, homes are not typically engulfed in a huge wall of flame but instead are ignited when fire travels to the home via grass, debris, plantings, and other fuels. Fires can spread from the ground to the canopy of trees through 'ladder fuels,' like tall grasses, shrubs, and dead or hanging limbs. When fire reaches the crown it can quickly intensify and spread. Eliminating fuel buildup and breaking up the connections between one fuel source and another are major thrusts of firewise landscaping.
To effectively manage the space around the home for fire mitigation, zones are established for the entire property (see Firewise Landscaping Tips). Within these zones, measures are taken to reduce or eliminate fuels.
The most aggressive measures are taken in Zone 1, the zone immediately encircling the home for at least thirty feet on all sides. This zone is landscaped with carefully spaced plantings and low-flammability species. It is also designed to provide ample space for fire fighting equipment to access the home. As zones progress outward from the home, other measures are taken to provide fuel breaks and reduce overall fuel load.
Responsibility and opportunity
Landscaping professionals who practice in WUI areas have both a responsibility and an opportunity to learn and apply these practices. Wildfire risk is getting a lot of attention these days and homeowners are actively seeking guidance. Some communities are mandating fire mitigation practices with new landscaping ordinances.
"The landscaping community can really make a difference," says Laraas Cook. "As we've promoted this issue, we get frequent requests from people looking for professional help with this."
"It is vital for landscape contractors to become involved," agrees Randall Ismay, owner of Water & Landscape Consultants in Laguna Niguel, California. Ismay's company works on wildfire risk reduction and other landscape and water related issues for large clients such as cities, states, land developers, and homeowners associations.
Although he works with large scale clients, he sees a great need for this kind of work at the homeowner level. "This is something not many people have expertise in," he says. "I get calls regularly from individual homeowners looking for help."
Susan Oliver has been offering professional wildfire mitigation services for more than six years through her company, Firewise Colorado. Oliver is emphatic about the need for more education on this issue. "I'm very excited about this topic," she says. "I teach about it for free because there is such a great need."
While Oliver teaches about the topic on a voluntary basis, she has built a thriving business around helping homeowners create defensible spaces around their homes. Her work involves assessing risk, reducing the property's fuel load, and providing guidance on appropriate plantings. Her job often calls for thinning stands of scrub oak. As Oliver points out, this kind of housecleaning used to be done by the fire itself. "We have a lot of gambrel oak here," she says. "Since people started the practice of fire suppression, none of this has been removed."
This has resulted in a buildup of fuel and a dense undergrowth that looks far different from the park-like setting that existed when regular fires kept the fuel load in check. "Sometimes people don't want me to take it out," says Oliver. "They think it looks natural. But it's really not natural. And it's a huge fuel load in the neighborhood."
Learning and practicing firewise landscaping is not only the responsible thing to do, it can also be a very smart thing to do for your company. "Contractors who learn about this will be ahead of the rest of the crowd," says Ismay. "It's an untapped source of income."
But he points out the importance of having a thorough understanding of firewise landscaping before offering guidance or services in that area. "This is potentially a very lucrative area," he says, "but you need to do it with ethics. If you advertise this specialty, it's important to have the expertise. If you don't have time to seek expertise yourself, you can also contract with a consultant and offer services that way."
Contractors who want to get involved have countless sources for education on this topic. One of the best places to start is with the Firewise Communities website (www.firewise.org). The site offers practical tips, instructional videos, books, fire resistant plant lists, and information about Firewise workshops offered in various locations. Many local fire departments, extension agencies, and government agencies are also actively involved in firewise education.
Life in a fire-prone ecosystem is a reality for many as a growing population continues to push its way into what used to be called the wilderness. While we simply can't prevent every wildfire from approaching our neighborhoods, we don't have to invite fire up to our doorsteps. Fire resistant landscapes go a long way toward keeping it away.