Firewise Landscaping

By Cynthia Bee, Conservation Garden Park

Many Utahns have made their home in the foothills of our beautiful mountains or along the edges of communities adjacent to open land. While these locations have many advantages, they also come with the risk of wildfires. We’ve all watched with bated breath the past couple of weeks as the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires burned dangerously close to highly-populated areas in Utah County. Earlier this summer, homes in other parts of the state were threatened, and some structures lost, in the Dollar Ridge, Hill Top, Crooked Creek, Coal Hollow and Goose Creek fires—and that’s just this year.

Extensive research conducted throughout the Western United States shows how residential landscaping may play a role in the loss of structures during a wildfire. Dozens of fires along the urban/wildland interface were studied, especially when some homes were lost while others miraculously avoided the worst of the fires. The findings of these studies were used to create firewise design principles—which happen to dovetail nicely with the Localscapes-style landscape layouts we recommend.

Zone 1: The Home. When building, choosing the right location for the home is critical. Homes perched on the uphill edge of slopes are more vulnerable. Homes in wildland interface areas should be constructed of non-flammable materials. Avoid shake shingles for roofing and wood for siding or decks. Instead, consider masonry siding and tile or other durable, non-flammable roofing material. Decks should be made of masonry, metal, or composite materials that are fire resistant.

Zone 2: Ignition Zone. The landscaping within 100 feet of the home should be clear of trees and large shrubs. Trees and taller shrubs adjacent to the foundation provide fuel near the home where fire can climb and enter through the eaves. Either remove trees adjacent to the home or prune them significantly to ensure they are not overhanging the roof of the home. Groundcovers and low-growing perennials and shrubs are the best options for landscaping the foundation of homes in the “ignition zone.” It’s also advisable to use inorganic rock mulch adjacent to the house around low-growing plants. Keep this area free from buildup of dried leaves and twigs.

Some plants are more prone to ignition than others. Consider using plants that retain more moisture in their leaves, like succulents or cactus. Some plants contain volatile oils and should be avoided. Additionally, plants which produce less mass either because they are small or have fewer or smaller leaves and branches will provide less fuel for fires.

Zone 3: Wildlands. If you have wildlands on your property, thinning tree groupings or removing low-growing brush between the trees will reduce opportunities for fire to climb into the tree canopy. Fire spreads most easily through the canopy of trees or large shrubs. Reduce or eliminate these opportunities where possible.

While there is certainly no guarantee a home would be spared even if firewise design standards are followed, the chances are much greater. To learn more about how to apply firewise landscaping principles to your yard and find lists of fire-resistant plants, check out publications from Utah State University Extension on this topic, available online at https://extension.usu.edu/.

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