by F.C. Dennis * (1/12)
- More people are moving into Colorado’s rural areas, increasing the chances of wildfire.
- “Defensible space” is the primary determinant of a structure’s ability to survive wildfire.
- Native species are generally the best plant materials for landscaping in defensible space, but others can be grown successfully in Colorado.
- To be a FireWise homeowner, plan well, plant well and maintain well.
Colorado’s population is growing, its urban areas are rapidly expanding, and people are building more homes in what was once natural forest and brushlands. Newcomers to rural areas need to know how to correctly landscape their property to reduce wildfire hazards.
Improper landscaping worries land managers and fire officials because it can greatly increase the risk of structure and property damage from wildfire. It is a question of when, not if, a wildfire will strike any particular area.
Vegetative clearance around the house (defensible space) is a primary determinant of a home’s ability to survive wildfire. Defensible space is, simply, room for firefighters to do their job. If grasses, brush, trees and other common forest fuels are removed, reduced, or modified to lessen a fire’s intensity and keep it away from the home, chances increase that the structure will survive. It is a little-known fact that in the absence of a defensible space, firefighters will often bypass a house, choosing to make their stand at a home where their safety is more assured and the chance to successfully protect the structure is greater.
Landscaping Defensible Space
People often resist creating defensible space because they believe that it will be unattractive, unnatural and sterile-looking. It doesn’t have to be! Wise landowners carefully plan landscaping within the defensible space. This effort yields a many-fold return of beauty, enjoyment and added property value. Development of defensible space is outlined in fact sheet Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones.
Colorado has great diversity in climate, geology and vegetation. Home and cabin sites can be found from the foothills through 10,000-foot elevations. Such extremes present a challenge in recommending plants. While native plant materials generally are best, a wide range of species can be grown successfully in Colorado.
Many plant species are suitable for landscaping in defensible space. Use restraint and common sense, and pay attention to plant arrangement and maintenance. It has often been said that how and where you plant are more important than what you plant. While this is indeed true, given a choice among plants, choose those that are more resistant to wildfire.
Consider the following factors when planning, designing and planting the FireWise landscape within your home’s defensible space:
- Landscape according to the recommended defensible-space zones. That is, the plants near your home should be more widely spaced and lower growing than those farther away.
- Do not plant in large masses. Instead, plant in small, irregular clusters or islands.
- Use decorative rock, gravel and stepping stone pathways to break up the continuity of the vegetation and fuels. This can modify fire behavior and slow the spread of fire across your property.
- Incorporate a diversity of plant types and species in your landscape. Not only will this be visually satisfying, but it should help keep pests and diseases from causing problems within the whole landscape.
- In the event of drought and water rationing, prioritize plants to be saved. Provide available supplemental water to plants closest to your house.
- Use mulches to conserve moisture and reduce weed growth. Mulch can be organic or inorganic. Do not use pine bark, thick layers of pine needles or other mulches that readily carry fire.
- Be creative! Further vary your landscape by including bulbs, Garden art and containers for added color.
Figure 1: Forested property surrounding a homesite shows optimum placement of vegetation near the structure.
During much of the year, grasses ignite easily and burn rapidly. Tall grass will quickly carry fire to your house. Mow grasses low in the inner zones of the defensible space. Keep them short closest to the house and gradually increase height outward from the house, to a maximum of 8 inches. This is particularly important during fall, winter and before green-up in early spring, when grasses are dry, dormant and in a “cured” fuel condition. Given Colorado’s extremely variable weather, wildfires can occur any time of the year. Maintenance of the grassy areas around your home is critical.
Mow grasses low around the garage, outbuildings, decks, firewood piles, propane tanks, shrubs, and specimen trees with low-growing branches.
Ground Cover Plants
Replace bare, weedy or unsightly patches near your home with ground covers, rock Gardens, vegetable Gardens and mulches. Ground cover plants are a good alternative to grass for parts of your defensible space. They break up the monotony of grass and enhance the beauty of your landscape. They provide a variety of textures and color and help reduce soil erosion. Consider ground cover plants for areas where access for mowing or other maintenance is difficult, on steep slopes and on hot, dry exposures.
Ground cover plants are usually low growing. They are succulent or have other FireWise characteristics that make them useful, functional and attractive. When planted in beds surrounded by walkways and paths, in raised beds or as part of a rock Garden, they become an effective barrier to fire spread. The ideal groundcover plant is one which will spread, forming a dense mat of roots and foliage that reduces soil erosion and excludes weeds.
Mulch helps control erosion, conserve moisture and reduce weed growth. It can be organic (compost, leaf mold, bark chips, shredded leaves) or it can be inorganic (gravel, rock, decomposing granite).
When using organic mulches, use just enough to reduce weed and grass growth. Avoid thick layers. When exposed to fire, they tend to smolder and are difficult to extinguish. Likewise, while your property might yield an abundance of needles from your native pines or other conifers, don’t use them as mulch because they can readily catch and spread wildfire. Rake, gather and dispose of them often within your defensible space.
Wildflowers bring variety to a landscape and provide color from May until frost. Wildflower beds give a softer, more natural appearance to the otherwise manicured look often resulting from defensible space development.
A concern with wildflowers is the tall, dense areas of available fuel they can form, especially in dormancy. To reduce fire hazard, plant wildflowers in widely separated beds within the defensible space. Do not plant them next to structures unless the beds are frequently watered and weeded and vegetation is promptly removed after the first hard frost. Use gravel walkways, rock retaining walls or irrigated grass areas mowed to a low height to isolate wildflower beds from each other and from other fuels.
Shrubs lend color and variety to the landscape and provide cover and food for wildlife. However, shrubs concern fire professionals because, as the next level in the “fuel continuum,” they can add significantly to total fuel loading. Because of the woody material in their stems and branches, they are a potential source of fire brands. When carried in the smoke column ahead of the main fire, fire brands can rapidly spread the fire in a phenomenon known as “spotting.”
But the primary concern with shrubs is that they are a “ladder fuel” — they can carry a relatively easy-to-control surface grass fire into tree crowns. Crown fires are difficult, sometimes impossible, to control (see Figure 2).
To reduce the fire-spreading potential of shrubs, plant only widely separated, low-growing, nonresinous varieties close to structures. Do not plant them directly beneath windows or vents or where they might spread under wooden decks. Do not plant shrubs under tree crowns or use them to screen propane tanks, firewood piles or other flammable materials. Plant shrubs individually, as specimens, or in small clumps apart from each other and away from any trees within the defensible space.
Mow grasses low around shrubs. Prune dead stems from shrubs annually. Remove the lower branches and suckers from species such as Gambel oak to raise the canopy away from possible surface fires.
Figure 2: Ladder fuels enable fire to travel from the ground surface into shrubs and then into the tree canopy.
Trees provide a large amount of available fuel for a fire and can be a significant source of fire brands if they do burn. Radiant heat from burning trees can ignite nearby shrubs, trees and structures.
Colorado’s elevation and temperature extremes limit tree selection. The best species to plant generally are those already growing on or near the site. Others may be planted with careful selection and common sense.
If your site receives enough moisture to grow them, plant deciduous trees such as aspen or narrow-leaf cottonwood. These species, even when planted in dense clumps, generally do not burn well, if at all. The greatest problem with these trees is the accumulation of dead leaves in the fall. Remove accumulations close to structures as soon as possible after leaf drop.
When site or available moisture limits recommended species to evergreens, carefully plan their placement. Do not plant trees near structures. Leave plenty of room between trees to allow for their growth. Spacing within the defensible space should be at least 10 feet between the edges of tree crowns. On steep ground, allow even more space between crowns. Plant smaller trees initially on a 20- to 25-foot spacing to allow for tree growth. At some point, you will have to thin your trees to retain proper spacing.
As the trees grow, prune branches to a height of 10 feet above the ground. Do not overprune the crowns. A good rule of thumb is to remove no more than one-third of the live crown of the tree when pruning. Prune existing trees as well as ones you planted.
Some trees (for example, Colorado blue spruce) tend to keep a full crown. Other trees grown in the open may also exhibit a full growth habit. Limit the number of trees of this type within the defensible space. Prune others as described above and mow grasses around such specimen trees.
Structural Elements of a FireWise Landscape
When building a deck or patio, use concrete, flagstone or rock instead of wood. These materials do not burn and do not collect flammable debris like the space between planks in wooden decking.
Where appropriate on steeper ground, use retaining walls to reduce the steepness of the slope. This, in turn, reduces the rate of fire spread. Retaining walls also act as physical barriers to fire spread and help deflect heat from the fire upwards and away from structures.
Rock or masonry walls are best, but even wooden tie walls constructed of heavy timbers will work. Put out any fires burning on tie walls after the main fire front passes.
On steep slopes, consider building steps and walkways around structures. This makes access easier for home maintenance and enjoyment. It also serves as a physical barrier to fire spread and increases firefighters’ speed and safety as they work to defend your home.
A landscape is a dynamic system that constantly grows and changes. Plants considered fire resistant and which have low fuel volumes can lose these characteristics over time. Your landscape, and the plants in it, must be maintained to retain their FireWise properties.
- Always keep a watchful eye towards reducing the fuel volumes available to fire. Be aware of the growth habits of the plants within your landscape and of the changes that occur throughout the seasons.
- Remove annuals and perennials after they have gone to seed or when the stems become overly dry.
- Rake up leaves and other litter as it builds up through the season.
- Mow or trim grasses to a low height within your defensible space. This is particularly important as grasses cure.
- Remove plant parts damaged by snow, wind, frost or other agents.
- Timely pruning is critical. Pruning not only reduces fuel volumes but also maintains healthier plants by producing more vigorous, succulent growth.
- Landscape maintenance is a critical part of your home’s defense system. Even the best defensible space can be compromised through lack of maintenance. The old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here.
- Creating Wild-Fire Defensible Zones
- 6.304, Forest Home Fire Safety
- 6.305, FireWise Plant Materials
- 7.233, Wildflowers for Colorado
- 7.406, Flowers for Mountain Communities
- 7.413, Ground Covers for Mountain Communities
- 7.423, Trees and Shrubs for Mountain Areas
*Staff Forester (retired), Colorado State Forest Service.
This fact sheet was produced in cooperation with the Colorado State Forest Service. FIREWISE is a multi-agency program that encourages the development of defensible space and the prevention of catastrophic wildfire. 5/99. Revised 1/12.
Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colorado counties cooperating. Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.
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