Fire-Smart Landscaping Tips

When you think of wildfires, California is probably the first place that comes to mind, but wildfires can happen anywhere, especially in the western and southern states. That's why rural and suburban dwellers should keep the threat of fire in mind when landscaping. Here are some guidelines to keep your home safe.

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    Tame a Slope

    If you have a sloping site, build stone or concrete retaining walls that will help prevent fire from spreading up or down the hill. Plus, a sturdy retaining wall will minimize soil erosion. Here, a low-stone retaining wall creates an easily accessible planting bed for fire-resistant plants.

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    Divide and Conquer

    Use wide brick or paver pathways to divide your garden. This will help prevent fire from spreading across your landscape. Paths will also create better access for first responders. Be sure your paths are at least 4 feet wide. In this California front yard, serpentine garden paths provide interest and protection.

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    Go Deciduous

    If you live in an area with high fire danger, avoid planting resin-rich conifers such as pine, juniper, spruce, or arborvitae. Instead, go with deciduous trees that don't produce a lot of dead wood. Serviceberry, for example, provides four-season interest in the garden but does not drop limbs. It also produces small leaves that decompose quickly.

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    Consider Mulch

    Mulching your garden is the best way to maintain consistent soil moisture, eliminate weeds, and keep your plants healthy. However, in some regions where fire is a hazard, consider using materials such as gravel or seashells, instead of flammable materials like shredded bark or pine needles. In this succulent border, small chunks of granite act as a fire-safe mulch.

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    Keep it Low

    When landscaping your home, select compact shrubs, trees, and perennials, that won’t bury your home in a mountain of foliage. It’s also wise to space your plants so they don’t form a solid mass of burnable material. This handsome ranch home is landscaped with low-growing trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Each plant has plenty of space to stretch out without bumping into its neighbors.

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    Rely on Groundcovers

    Avoid landscaping hard-to-mow locations with turf grass. If the grass is neglected and grows too long, it will become a fire hazard. Instead, plant low-maintenance groundcovers. On this steep slope, the turf was replaced with a mass of gray Santolina punctuated by colorful agave. The Santolina and agave require little care and are both fire-resistant.

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    Clean Up the Dead

    One of the best ways to avoid fires is to keep your garden free of any dead and dying branches on shrubs and trees. Carry a sharp pair of pruning shears with you whenever you walk through your garden and clip away dead material as it appears. Use gloves and remove dead branches as close to ground as possible.

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    Select Fire-Resistant Plants

    Although there aren’t any plants that are truly fireproof, there are some that are more resistant to an unexpected burn. Look for low-growing plants with a high level of moisture in their leaves. Plants such as sedum, succulents, cacti, Euphorbia, Cotoneaster, Mahonia, lilac, Santolina, ice plant, thyme, lavender, Echeveria, agave, allium, and iris are just a few options. This gorgeous garden path proves that a fire-resistant garden can still be colorful.

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    Make an Escape

    If you live in a region that’s prone to wildfires, avoid planting shrubs and trees in front of windows and doors where they might block your escape. In particular, avoid using thorny shrubs such as roses and barberries in your foundation planting. They can make a quick getaway almost impossible. Here, for example, the home’s windows and doors are easily accessible, yet the front yard is still colorful and inviting.

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    Pave Instead of Build

    Instead of adding a wooden deck onto your home, why not opt for a brick or concrete patio? Where wildfires are possible, a wooden deck might catch fire, but a patio will act as a buffer if things heat up. In this small backyard, a stamped concrete patio adds plenty of outdoor living space and would keep potential fire at bay.

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    Go Natural

    Prevent potential wildfires from racing across your landscape by making a natural firebreak with boulders or granite slabs. If you change the terrain, fire will have to work a lot harder to get to your house. In this front yard, large boulders were used to create a rocky outcrop with fire-resistant plants tucked in the crevices.

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    Avoid Problem Plants

    Some plants pose more of a danger than others in fire-prone regions. The resin-rich needles of conifers such as spruce, pine, juniper, and arborvitae will burst into flame when fire strikes, so plant them well away from your home. Ornamental grasses also can cause problems if you don’t clip the faded flower stalks back to the ground each fall. In this garden, a dwarf blue spruce and feather reed grass are paired in a back border so they don’t cause problems if a fire starts.

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    Build a Wall

    Add privacy and fire protection with a stucco or masonry wall near your front door. The owners of this California home added a handsome stucco wall to shield the view from the street and keep the entry safe from an unexpected wildfire. A small window built into the wall lets the family see when visitors arrive. Kangaroo paws and ice plant add plenty of color and are both fire-resistant.

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    Allow Access

    When designing your landscape, leave enough room for emergency vehicles to gain access to all sides of your home. Although this isn’t always possible, try to leave enough space for fire trucks or emergency vehicles to get close. An overgrown yard will prevent help from getting close enough to be effective. At this home, a wide front path connects directly to the driveway so emergency workers could do their jobs as fast as possible. The plants in the landscape are also kept low so the house isn’t hidden from view.

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    Rake Leaves

    Piles of dead leaves can quickly turn a few stray embers into a raging wildfire, especially when the weather is dry and windy. Rake and remove all leaves as they fall and shred them before you add them to your compost pile. Although leaf burning is still allowed in some communities, it’s best to remove them without lighting them on fire.

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    Be Prepared

    Although no one should ever try to fight a wildfire on their own, it can’t hurt to have extra hoses readily accessible in your garage or shed. The last thing you want to discover when a fire breaks out is that your hose doesn’t reach the burn. It’s also smart to store extra extension cords nearby in case you need to run emergency lights if things heat up after dark.

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    Talk to the Professionals

    If you are concerned about wildfires in your area, talk to your local fire department about additional ways you can protect your home. They are trained to keep a lid on wildfires and might be willing to give you personal advice about how you can fireproof your home and landscape.

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    Begin Slideshow »
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