Tips to harden your home from wildfires
When Doug Kent wrote the first edition of his book, “Firescaping: Protecting Your Home with a Fire-Resistant Landscape,” back in 2005, it was all about the plants. You can make your landscape more fire-safe, he concluded, by choosing plants that are less combustible. It seemed almost too good to be true.
And so it was.
In the 14 years since, California has experienced a wave of terrifying, wind-driven firestorms that roared into urban areas and laid waste to thousands of homes.
The Tubbs and Nuns fires of 2017 ripped through Fountaingrove, Mark West and Coffey Park in Santa Rosa taking down 5,636 structures; a complex of fires at the same time around the upper Sonoma Valley blackened 56,556 acres and destroyed 1,527 structures.
The Kincade fire last fall engulfed 78,000 acres and destroyed 374 structures.
After the Tubbs fire, the first edition of “Firescaping” sold out. So Wilderness Press asked Kent to work on a new edition.
What he discovered after the most recent fires, including the Camp fire that devastated the town of Paradise in Butte County, is that the biggest threat to property comes not from flames and burning brush but from flying embers. Even if the flames at a fire’s edge never reach your home, embers can be carried a mile or more in front of a wildfire and find their way into a crack or eave of your home, setting the whole place ablaze.
“I found out it wasn’t really gardens killing people,” said Kent, a landscape architect and ecological land management specialist who has built a name as an expert in protecting homes and landscapes from fire. “Like in Paradise. You’d see these beautiful forests and hundreds of homes gone with junipers sitting next to them.”
Juniper has a reputation as one of the most fire-prone species. It’s sometimes dubbed “gasoline bush” by firefighters.
While choosing less fire-prone plants is still smart in wildfire country, Kent cautions that “home hardening” is far more important. That’s one of the most significant changes he made when updating “Firescaping.” The second edition, released in late 2019 (Wilderness Press, $21.95), puts more emphasis on preparing your property to withstand a barrage of firebrands - wind-propelled objects carried for some distance in an airstream - that could go on for days. He also stresses the importance of landscape maintenance.
For evidence, look back to the California missions.
“Not one mission was ever destroyed in a wildfire, and that persisted for hundreds of years,” said Kent, who was living in woodsy Marin County when he wrote the first edition of “Firescaping.” He has since resettled in Southern California, where he has his own landscape design company in Orange and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona.
The mission friars built their structures with adobe clay and small windows, he said. They kept water in their courtyards. There were no wild plants near the complex. Every plant served a function.
“We have plants as pets,” he said. “The Spanish would never have a plants as pets,” he said, referring to our heavy use of plants for ornamental purposes. “They were all for food purposes or they would be gone. It was a dynamic, working landscape. There was nothing dead, dying or diseased. Otherwise it would have been removed and replaced with alive, thriving and producing plants. Food plants have an impeccable record of stopping wildfire.”
The problem with relying on plant lists, he said, is that the ability of any plant to resist fire depends on its condition. If it is old, dry, infested with pests or poorly cared for, it will be more vulnerable.
Kent recommends property owners engage in aggressive maintenance of what they have. That means pruning or removing dead, dying or diseased vegetation and making sure there is proper spacing between trees. Remove leaves and other debris from roof gutters and fallen debris littering the property.
Take out plants that are known to be flammable. Some of the common ones include acacia, fir, cypress, sweet bay, spruce, yew and California bay, among trees. Perennials and shrubs that can be problematic in fire country include rosemary, tear tree, juniper, Coyote bush and buckwheat, as well as field and black mustard. Grasses that should be removed include Pampas grass, which also is invasive, fountain grass, deer grass and annual grasses such as barley, oats and rye.
Remove anything that is remotely flammable from within 5 feet of the house. Keep plants watered before they show signs of stress. Make sure all paths are stable and easy to navigate.
But beyond that, the best thing a homeowner can do is button up.