Firescaping for home protection

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The Firescape Demonstration Garden in Santa Barbara is well worth a visit from any Malibu homeowners interested in learning more about protecting their home against fire. The whole speciality of firescape gardening has become an important element in the landscape plan for residents of coastal areas like Malibu, Santa Barbara, and all areas exposed to potential wildfires. The Santa Barbara garden is relatively small and designed to showcase the principles of planting in fire zones.

Divide the property into four zones, the firescape plan recommends. The first zone is closest to the home. Plants in this zone should be highly fire resistant — examples are agapanthas, armeria, dietes, kniphofia uvaria, or red hot poker, jasmine, pomegranate, pyracantha and star jasmine.

Zone two is the greenbelt zone for low-growing, low-fuel ground covers and succulants. The fleshy succulants will store water and not fuel the fires. Zone two is the area where one might plant agaves, aloes, natal plum shrubs, coprosma known as the “mirror plant,” crassula or jade plants and ice plant. Indian mock strawberry, duchesnea indica and the wild strawberry, fragaria chiloensis also are recommended for the zone two plantings. The succulant echeveria, which includes the popular hen and chickens succulant and myoporum parvifolium, the prostrate variety, are zone two choices. Low-growing scaevola or fan flower and the ever-favorite society garlic, tulbaghia violacea, are recommended. A tree suitable for zone two is the California Pepper, shinus molle.

Zone three, as set up by the Santa Barbara garden, is planted with low-fuel-volume shrubs and perennials: white, yellow, red and pink yarrows; artemesia (lovely grey foliage); dusty miller; rockrose; coreopsis; monkey flower and red monkey flower; California poppies; orange and yellow gazanias; low growing geraniums; statice and sages.

The last zone is the native chaparral, manzanita, ceanothus. All existing native vegetation should be thinned to reduce the volume of fuel close to the house.

The firescape information recommends careful planning using a professional landscaper, who will take into consideration all aspects of irrigation and drainage, fire dangers and preparation.

One concept is to eliminate fire ladders, where fire jumps from shrub to tree to structure. Ideally, trees should not be within 15 feet of the house. Properties in fire areas should be maintained on schedule. Weeds should be cut back, overgrown shrubs cut down, and trees thinned with branches cut to six feet above ground where possible.

The Santa Barbara Firescape garden is open to the public, and is located at the juncture of Stanwood Drive and Mission Ridge Road in Montecito. Phone 805-564-5703.

Another approach to fire safety is that taken by Lee Walmsley of Malibu. He applies his own “torch test” to anything he plants: Check it out and see if it burns.

However, there is a lot more to fire safety than which plants to choose.

Having an emergency water source on the property may be one of the best preventive measures a Malibu homeowner could take. those who have a swimming pool, should equip it with a gasoline-powered pump to disburse the water onto the house and property. For those without pools, 55-gallon storage drums can be fitted with pumps and hoses.

Even more fundamentally, can the fire department find the house? Is it clearly marked? Accessible to large fire engines?

Defense against wildfires begins with an understanding of the nature of wildfires, which rapidly burn uphill. Houses placed at midslope with fuel above and below the structure are in double peril. Also, the house at the top of a slope placed too close to the edge can ignite rapidly due to heat buildup coming up the slope. And the house with an area for fire fighters to reach the house has a better survival chance.

Keeping the house and surrounding areas clear of debris and excess vegetation will always be important. If time is limited, clear dry brush on the downhill side first, removing everything from areas below decks, and keep rain gutters, patio corners and planting beds clear of dry leaves.

Peggy Harris is a garden designer and editor of Malibu Garden Club Newsletter.