California Wildfires and Precautions Those in Proximity Can Take
Updated: Jan 29
No matter where you live, you have undoubtedly heard about the deadly, devastating wildfires that have ravaged California and other Western states over the past few years. Perhaps you watched on TV, read about the aftermath in newspapers or online. Maybe you were personally affected (we hope not). I had eight different relatives and their families lose everything in the Paradise, CA fire in November, 2018. They were fortunate to escape with their lives, unharmed.
Whether wildfires are attributed to arson or are accidental; due to poor land management; encouraged by cyclical droughts California faces every decade or so; insect infestations that sometimes plague the forests; a by-product of climate chance or something else, their danger is real. What used to be a seasonal caution has become a year-round threat for the wildlife and those living in California. According to CalFire, between 2013 and 2018 alone, 5,395,088 acres, or roughly 5.4% of California, has been destroyed by wildfires. The same areas sometimes get hit more than once. It seems just as Mother Nature heals from one fire; another takes its place. During times like this, it’s easy to feel helpless. However, there are things you can do to help protect yourself and your neighbors, things with potential benefits with very little effort.
Create a defensible space around your house. The reason for doing this is two-fold, it reduces the amount of flammable vegetation and provides fire departments an unobstructed space in which to defend your home as well as your neighbor’s.
Remove plants, trees and shrubs that are highly flammable. For example, conifers such as cedars, firs and pines. They contain resin, ignite easily and produce intense fire and heat. A good rule of thumb when planting trees and shrubs is to keep a thirty-foot distance from any structure including homes, sheds and fences.
Prune all trees and shrubs to remove dead wood and low hanging branches. This should be done annually in general, but especially in drought years. The lower branches of trees should be at least eight-feet from the ground when possible.
Remove pine needles and dead leaves from the ground.
If you use wood to burn as a heat source, stack it at least thirty-feet from your home.
Create a fire-resistant landscape. This type of landscape utilizes fire-resistant plants that are strategically placed to reduce the spread of fire. Keep in mind that no plant, tree or shrub is 100% fire proof, but there are a lot that are fire-resistant and drought tolerant.
Incorporate stone walkways, stone walls and rock in flower beds to create firebreaks.
When selecting plants, select those that are high in moisture and contain a low sap or resin content. Plants such as manzanita, California lilac, rosea ice plant, San Diego sunflower and lavender are among a myriad of native plants that retain moisture. They can also tolerate a drought and can handle the intense heat of a fire. The lavender and San Diego sunflower are excellent for attracting bees. These plants will make your landscape pop and add stunning, vibrant colors to your landscape.
If shrubs are more your style, be sure to select those that drop their dead leaves instead of retaining them which can act as ignition points. You’ll also want to look for those that are high moisture and drought tolerant. Other selections include morning glory bush, honeysuckle, raspberry (which also reward you with delicious fruit), roses and yuccas. Regardless of what you choose, the most important thing is spacing. It is recommended you space them at least ten-feet apart. When you do, consider their maturity, not their size at planting.
When choosing trees, plant hardwoods. They are less flammable than pine or fir. Native trees have adapted to the ever-changing California climate. Their roots run deeper so even if the tree is burned, it will continue to live and will recover faster. (Many have adapted to droughts as well as flooding.) Notable native varieties include cherry, crab-apple, maple and oak. Oak is a wonderful option because the expansive canopies provide a natural shade and when placed correctly, can help lower the cost of air conditioning. However, you will need to stay on top of dead oak leaves - they can become flammable when dry.
Remember the thirty-foot rule!
A well-maintained yard can be the difference between losing everything and being spared.
Regularly prune your plants, shrubs and trees.
Keep your yard free from dead leaves and debris.
Remove any dead, dying or diseased plant-life.
Water your plants on a regularly basis to help them maintain their moisture.