Resource Conservation District
Step 2: Plan Defensible Space
Creating Defensible Space is one of the most fundamental aspects of a firescape. It acts as your last line of defense when it comes to wildfire. Keep the following in mind when you begin to plan and zone your property accordingly:
Zone 1: Within 30' of a structure
Zone 2: Between 30' - 100' of a structure.
Step 3: Hardscape
Increasing hardscaped areas provides "fire breaks" between vegetated areas and more spaces for you and your family to enjoy. Hardscapes not only act as fuel and fire breaks, but effectively reduce yard maintenance.
Some common ideas when hardscaping include adding an outdoor dining, firepit or patio area, crushed granite pathways, retaining walls, flagstone walkways or stairs, dry streambed, rock garden, and other amenities made of durable materials such as stone, gravel and concrete. Using unmortared pavers also allows precipitation to infiltrate back into the soil.
A dry streambed is a great accent to any landscape; it can also act as an area of stormwater collection and infiltration. It isn't hard to do. Dig out an area that gradually declines to about a foot below grade. You can line the trench with a weed-barrier, permeable fabric to reduce maintenance. Add gravel cobbles and fill the small gaps with crushed rock. There are suitable native plants you can add that can soften the hard edges and that withstand the wet and dry weather cycles we have.
Step 4: Plantings & Maintenance
Choosing the correct plants is going to influence how much aftercare your firescape will need and how well the plants adapt. There are great resources to help available on Calscape.org. Higher moisture content and evergreen plants should be used around structures. Avoid the most flammable plants such as palms, eucalyptus, and pines. Note how the sun crosses your garden throughout the day; some plants can handle direct sun all day, others require a mixture of shade and sun, while some are shade only. Using California native plants reduces the need for soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, and the use of water that exotic plants require. Natives are adapted to this climate including harsh conditions of heat, drought, wind, storms and even fire. Plus California plants will atttract birds and butterflies to your garden.
Planting groups should be spaced apart but be sure to plan for the mature size (width) of each plant. Over-crowding in 3 years is not good for the plants or for your firescape. Keep in mind the guidelines from Step 2 - spacing is key to slow the spread of fire. Mature tree crowns should be 10 to 12 feet apart, especially near the house. You can use native and other drought-tolerant plants and still have a safe, firescaped property. Using drip-irrigation is a great way to establish and maintain native plants.
A maintained garden is a safe garden! Annual pruning of woody plants will go a long way to reduce fuels and increase safety. Choosing plants with low maintenance needs, such as most native plants, and using hardscaping techniques can reduce the time it takes to maintain your garden. Cutting back dried grasses, dead-heading flowering plants, and keeping trees limbed up are all great fire-safe techniques to keep your garden safe and looking great.
Creating a plan for how you want your garden to look and function with the conditions you have is easier than you think. There are great sources online to look up what plants do well in your location, with little maintenance once established. Grab a pen and paper (preferrably graph paper) and take some notes, because you are about to get a crash course in what you can do when creating a firescape garden!
Step 1: Create a goal
Like anything else, before you start your project, consider the end goal. How do you want your garden to function and look? Do you want to add color and attract wildlife, make a dry river for accent, create a shady place to sit, add pathways for accessibility?
Once you have your goal in mind, start to think about the funadamental aspects of a firescape garden that incorporates the ideas of defensible space around structures. Measure out the distance from your house to your property line, if you are more than 30 feet than you can create more than one zone of defensible space. If your boundary is within 30 feet no problem, you have many options to enhance your property while you work with nature to reduce maintenance and water use.
Zone 3: This is your wildland urban interface, beyond 100' from a structure. Most property owners do not have the land to occupy this area. So don't worry if you can't meet this goal.