If you've been listening to the news this last week, you've heard that fire season is starting early--for a variety of reasons, it's almost upon us--news to make any New Mexican nervous, especially after this last year, the worst fire season in New Mexico history. With this in mind, I'd like to present highlights from a class we had last summer on Landscaping for Fire Safety.
First, if you haven't attended one of Forestry's Firewise seminars, you should. ASAP. Until then, there are many things you can do to help make your home safer in the event of wildfire--to the structure, and in your landscape. And still have a lovely garden, not just a field of rock with one or two puny plants.
Establish zones around the building--in the immediate area around the house consider establishing a no burn zone--use paving or rock, and succulent groundcovers within a few feet of the foundation. Think Tuscany--terraces, a fountain, pretty pots (that can be moved if necessary), Foundation plantings, trees and shrubs very close to the house, make it more susceptible to catching fire. Fire climbs--don't plant trees or shrubs under eaves, soffits or vents that give fire a ladder into the structure. Surround the house with walkways or terraces. Put your planting beds in mulched island berms no closer than 10 feet from the foundation. Plant low growing shrubs, groundcovers and perennials. No trees within ten feet of the house, and trees and shrubs well spaced within thirty feet or so. Fire climbs--trim limbs 10-15 feet high, and prune dead material out of shrubs. Choose plants that have low flammability like sumac, mountain mahogany, ponderosa, etc. (while most pine are highly flammable, ponderosa has thick, fire resistant bark.) Irrigate this immediate zone to keep plants well hydrated. Use small mulch; it holds moisture better than large bark, and feeds the soil as it breaks down. Living soil holds moisture. If you feel compelled to remove all cut grass, etc, consider composting it, and returning it to the soil. Living soil sustains a plant community that can withstand the vagaries of an arid environment. Remember the dust bowl.
Use hardscaping like walks, low walls, and drives to block the path of the prevailing wind; windblown cinders can be strategically blocked or deflected (cinders can be driven against a house in piles--burning it even when the fire is a mile away). Fire climbs--if your home is upslope from prevailing winds consider using hardscape to make a fire wall. The steeper the slope, the faster the fire climbs. Plant gradually, using a mix of low growing, fire resistant plants. Gambel oak has tenacious roots, and can be pruned low to keep fuel load down.
Keep flammable material cleaned up and away from the house--gutters, firewood. Solvents and other chemicals must be stored safely.
You've created a defensible space. This is mandated by code in parts of the country like California where wildfire has been a terrible problem. These simple strategies have had amazing results there, and here in New Mexico too.There is a lot of material about this out there, and some conflict. Do some reading, carefully consider your own situation, and make informed choices using common sense.
I'll try to find some photos, and next post I'll talk about some structural things that you should think about. I also have a nice, big list of fire resistant plants that work well here if I can just but find it....