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Home > Resources> Garden Solutions> Gardening and Wildfire > Firescape Garden

Firescape Garden

Much of the damage that wildfires cause to homes and property can be significantly reduced or prevented through an integrated program of protective measures; including the installation of fire-resistant roofs, boxed-in eaves, wet roof and fire protection systems, and the proper management of landscapes to minimize fire hazards. Those individuals who choose to establish their residence in urban fringe areas where highly-flammable oak woodland and chaparral vegetation occur should be aware of the danger posed by these habitats. Further compounding these hazards is the threat of soil erosion and flooding which can occur after a major fire. These dangers became quite real in Santa Barbara in 1977 when a fire in the Sycamore Canyon area destroyed over two hundred homes in eight hours.

An intelligent approach to landscaping your home can save your valuable property in wildfire. To assist you in making your residence fire-safe, this brochure offers suggestions for locating fire hazards which might exist on your property and for appropriate landscaping and home fire preparedness. These ideas have been incorporated into the design of the Santa Barbara Firescapes Garden.

The Firescapes project in the result of efforts by Santa Barbara City Fire Department officials and community members to construct a model garden which would graphically demonstrate how residents can reduce the risks of wildfire through proper planting, irrigation, and maintenance. The City Government embraced this concept in 1985 and designated the site and allocated funds for the construction of the project. This unique demonstration landscape consists on 1.7 acres divided into four different plant zones.

The Firescapes Garden in easily accessible, located less than five miles from downtown Santa Barbara. Ample parking exists at City Fire Station No.7, across from the site at 2411 Stanwood Drive. The Garden is open every day from 8:00 AM until sunset, and admission is free. Further information regarding the Firescape site and concept can be obtain by contacting the Santa Barbara City Fire Department Public Education Coordinator at (805) 564-5703 or inquiring at Fire Station No.7 during Garden hours.

The Firescapes Garden presents a unique concept of fire fuel reduction by defining four different plant zones for a successful scheme of landscaping for fire safety, cost efficiency, maintenance, and aesthetics. Efficient fire-safe landscaping consists of the selective removal of existing vegetation to reduce fuel volume and the planting of fire-station and fire-retardant plants. Fire-resistant plants can regenerate growth, despite burning. Fire-retardant plants are those which are less flammable than others. It should be noted that no plant is fire proof; given enough heat, all vegetation will burn. Yet plants do differ in how fast they burn, how high a flame they produce, and their ability to survive fire. It has been demonstrated that a property designed, well-maintained landscape can be an effective "first line of defense" against wildfires.

The four zones in the Garden represent different types of vegetation, each planted with a specific purpose in mind. Zone Four, the outermost area, consists of existing native vegetation which has been thinned to reduce fuel volume and create a transitional area between the natives and the plants around your house. In a fire, Zone Four will burn, but since it has less fuel, it will slow the fire. Low fuel-volume plants compose Zone Three. These shrubs and perennials offer material which is even less combustible than that in Zone Four. Zone Two is often referred to as the "greenbelt." Low-growing, low-fuel ground covers resistant to fire comprise that plants in this zone. The first three zones are progressively more fire-resistant and lower in fuel volume, providing an ever diminishing source of combustible material. The area directly adjacent to your home constitutes Zone One. The plants in this zone are highly fire-resistant. Thus the homeowner should establish these zones around his residence and properly select the right plants for the corresponding area.

This zone, lying closest to the residential structure, should offer protection from intense flames and sparks carried by strong winds common during a wildfire. Proper pruning of foliage and removal of plant litter will help to reduce structural vulnerability to fire. For example, the Tobira and Shiny Leaf Jasmine of this zone are fire-resistant and also exhibit of drought, heat, dust, and smog tolerance for hardy growth.

Note the presence of a previously existing mature pine tree next to the Fire Station. Such a pine tree could easily ignite during a wildfire. If you have a similar problem on your property, you should thin out this type of highly flammable vegetation to reduce the fuel load. Zone One plants have green labels.

This group of highly fire-retardant succulents and groundcovers offers a butter greenbelt zone of maximum fire protection. The fleshy succulents such as Jade Plant and Sedum store water in their tissue and this resist fire. Similarly, the Oleander shrub tolerates intense heat and sunlight, little water, and poor soils. Routine maintenance and irrigation should enhance the effective high moisture content of these plants which in turn should substantially slow the onslaught of an out-of-control fire before it reaches your house. Zone Two plants have yellow identification labels.

Moving farther away from the residence, Zone Three vegetation consists of selected native and introduced plants of similar low-growing, slow-burning characteristics. The low profiles and limited foliage of these varieties can retard the flow of fire. The reduced fuel volume shrubs (such as Santolina and Rockrose) and meadow plants (such as Yarrow) tolerate sun, heat, poor soils, and need little moisture. Maintain this area by periodically removing invasive grasses and crowded plants. Zone Three plants are tagged with blue labels.

Zone Four, lying farthest away from the residence, consists of native vegetation thinned to reduce foliage mass (fuel load). Many people erroneously feel that one should always remove native "brush" in the interest of fire safety. Recent research has shown that many native species, when kept thinned, have a lower susceptibility to fire than some common landscaping plants. The Coastal Live Oak and Silktassel characterized the hardy slope and soil stabilizing plants of this zone. These native California species have adapted to long, dry seasons, as their extensive root development allows the plants to draw water from deep in the soil. Proper thinning, reducing to one tree every 20 to 40 feet, should occur without overly exposing the soil to reduce the threat of erosion. Correct maintenance of this zone requires the removal of overgrowth and major pruning every 3 to 5 years. Plants in this area have red labels.

Any fire-safe landscape will require some irrigation. As emphasized in the description of the zone concept, irrigation keeps plant tissues filled with water, which in turn reduces their flammability. Proper watering also encourages deep rooting which helps control erosion. The Firescapes Garden demonstrates two efficient irrigation systems used to accommodate the varied needs of different plants: the overhead sprinkler system and the drip system.

A drip irrigation system is used for trees and shrubs requiring periodic deep watering, while overhead sprinklers are used for vegetation needing shallow constant water, such as lawns and large areas of ground covers. Consult a professional landscape contractor or landscape architect for advice on designing and installing an irrigation system for your property. Since water is a precious commodity in Southern California, it should be used efficiently and judiciously.

Established Zone Four plants do not require any watering as they have adapted to survive on winter rainfall. Indeed, watering them during the summer may encourage the development of diseases. The Zone Three plants tolerate drought conditions but should be given a deep soaking every month or so during the summer. Because these plants have deep roots and are spaced relatively far apart, a drip irrigation system produces the best results as it applies the water slowly and allows it to penetrate deeply into the soil with a minimum of runoff or evaporative loss. For Zone Two, a conventional overhead sprinkler system is recommended, preferably a low precipitation type designed to apply water slowly and evenly. For Zone One, either sprinklers or drip can be used in border areas or flower beds, while pop-up sprinklers effectively water most lawns and ground covers. The Firescapes Garden features an automatic irrigation system with a timer which efficiently operates the valves.

The use of wood-chip and stone mulches in the Firescapes Garden helps to reduce water loss and control erosion. All mulches (pebble bark, decomposed granite, rice hulls, to name a few) offer additional landscape benefits, such as weed control, insulation of soils against extreme air temperature, and a supply of nutrients from decomposed plant matter.

Fire-retardant landscaping should be accompanied by reducing fire hazards in your home and pre-planning fire emergency actions. Utilize the following suggestions for your home fire prevention strategies.

· Use a fire-retardant roofing material which meets Class A Building Code Standards.
· Do not use wood shake or wood shingle roofing or siding materials.
· Maintain a reasonable clearance as specified by your Fire Department. All structures should be kept free of vegetation, dead brush, or other debris.
· Obtain a permit from the Fire Department to burn such material during the wet season.
· Use quarter-inch wire mesh spark-arresters on all chimneys and attic vents.
· In a fire, cover all openings to your residence with plywood.
· Equip pools or hot tubs with a gas-powered pump for use as an auxiliary water supply.
· Maintain accessible garden hoses and ladders for immediate fire protection.
· Shut off gas at the meter when a fire threatens.
· Protect overhead construction extending six feet or more from a wall by boxing in eaves with plaster.

· Plan your evacuation procedures carefully with your entire family.
· Plan to park cars in a direction which would allow you to leave quickly and give consideration to which valuables you want to take.
· Close all windows and doors inside your residence to block off the circulation and movement of fire from room to room.

Wildfires will continue to sweep through Santa Barbara foothills. But effective firescaping and home fire-safety precautions can reduce the risk to your residence. Ideally, fire prevention measures should begin with the initial construction of any structure. Nonetheless, there are many adaptation that homeowners can make to protect their property, as the Firesacpes Garden and this pamphlet suggest.

For more information: Contact the Santa Barbra City Fire Department at (805)564-5702 or write to the Public Education Coordinator at 121 West Carrillo Street, Santa Barbara, California 93101.