How to protect your home with firescaping

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City of Malibu holds workshop to inform residents on best practices

Protecting your biggest investment, your home, against a devasting wildfire was the topic of a Malibu workshop intended to arm residents with knowledge and best practices for use in what’s called “firescaping.”

Cal Poly Pomona professor and expert landscaper Douglas Kent, who’s written extensively on wildfire damage prevention, shared his advice on how best to landscape homes in Malibu, a “flammable community.”

Kent likened your home to your heart.

“If you want to live long and thrive, you’re going to do all you can to create a healthy heart,” he said. “Same thing to defend against fire. Statistics show that if you have a fire hardened home you have a 70 percent chance of survival.”

Fire scientists like Kent have learned over the years that most homes lost to wildfires are ignited by flying embers. Preventing them from entering a structure is key. One of the first places to start is to make sure all home openings are screened with 1/16-inch metal mesh. This includes dryer vents and, of course, chimneys. 

Weatherization is key. Of the 1,643 structures lost in the Woolsey Fire, 60 to 70 percent were lost to firebrands according to Kent. 

“Forty percent of those burned from the inside out, which means the firebrand penetrated the structure and ignited something inside,” he said. 

Peeling paint, decayed weather stripping, and clogged gutters can all be easily ignited by firebrands, so home maintenance is key to keeping a home fire resilient, Kent added.

Make sure your address is clearly visible especially at night so emergency responders can identify your home. This probably means trimming trees, clearing brush and abiding by the 5-foot rule in clearing a path around your home. Create a defensible space. It’s critical to not store combustible materials in a 5-foot perimeter around your home. Recyclables, trash, compost, tools, and furniture cushions need to be stored away from the structure. “

So much of fire protection is basic housekeeping,” said Kent, who added that slopes are also a concern. “I don’t think Malibu has one flat place. What happens on slopes is flame lengths double with every 10-degree growth in slope. If you have a 3-foot flame on flat land, it would be 6 feet on a 10-degree slope, 12 feet on a 20-percent slope, and on a 30-percent slope it would be 24 feet long. The slope causes a convective process that elongates the flame. If you have slopes, you really need to concentrate on your structure more than anything because you’re going to get those elongated flames and firebrands lashing your structure. The solutions are screens.” 

Kent suggests clearing eaves and hardening your home’s trim materials often made of soft wood that can twist and buckle when exposed to intense heat, inviting firebrands into newly formed gaps. 

“Really watch where any two materials meet,” he said. “It’s going to be a place of vulnerability.” This can be especially true of fences connected to homes. 

Play structures, tool sheds and other outbuildings are often overlooked by residents hardening their homes. 

Malibu Fire Liaison Gabriel Etcheverry, on hand for the presentation, makes free house calls and assessments for Malibu residents. Etcheverry will give suggestions on how to fire harden your entire property. But as Kent said, “If your neighbors are not on board it could bring a fire onto your property.” 

Getting neighbors to comply with fire smart practices and firescaping can sometimes be challenging. Etcheverry encouraged attendees to “work with your neighbors.”  Kent even offered using “cookie diplomacy” in order to compromise with neighbors and encourage landscape maintenance. 

Landscaping with less flammable plants around your home is ideal. These types of plants are generally broad-leafed, with thick and easy to bend leaves that are moist. These plants should also have a low amount of litter as opposed to a conifer, have sap that looks more like water, have no fragrance, no hair and have silver or gray leaves. Examples include toyon, native verbena, yucca, coast live oak, and ceonothus. But Kent emphasized, “It’s not the plant itself. It’s the maintenance, the pruning, the care, the irrigation. That’s what’s going to create the fire resistance. Maintenance is the fulcrum of fire safety without a doubt.”