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Home > Resources> Garden Solutions> Gardening and Wildfire > Sycamore Canyon Fire

Sycamore Canyon Fire


Any time is fire season in Southern California. Take advantage of the experience of seasoned fire observer Dick Wilson to help prevent a wild fire from using the vegetation in your yard to spread the fire to your home. Dick was a Staff Writer for the Santa Barbara News Press in 1977 when the large Sycamore fire consumed numerous homes in the Santa Barbara foothills.


“REPLANT TO SAVE YOUR HOUSE” by Dick Wilson, Santa Barbara News Press Staff Writer - 1977

Some of the most valuable lessons learned as a result of the Sycamore Canyon Fire [Santa Barbara 1977] were those pertaining to the resisting qualities of certain types of vegetation, and those types which contributed greatly to the advance of the fire.

D.R. Miller, herbarium curator at [Santa Barbara] City College was one of those who stayed with his home on Nicholas Lane the night of the fire and succeeded in saving it. Miller said he was amazed at the different ways plants reacted to the fire. He not only observed the fire's effect on the plants surrounding his home, but he has this week made a personal survey of the plants within the burned area of the Sycamore Canyon Fire.

Accompanying this article is his list of the three categories of plants "which I felt were fire-resistant, heat-resistant and those which were fire-receptive."

Those in the first category, the fire-resistant species, are the ones Miller recommends the most for planting in the high-fire-danger area. Those in the heat-resistant category are his next highest preferences. But he discourages the use of those in the third category, the fire-receptive, because of the way they build up the heat and spread a fire.

"Those in the third class." Miller said, "are among the most popular of the vegetation types that were found surrounding the homes that were burned."

"I didn't see a pine that was worth its salt at all," he emphasized. The real danger he faced at his place was in having some of the pines and junipers too near his home, even growing up under some of the eaves. Miller said he almost lost his home three times because of having the wrong kind of vegetation near his home.

"The pines burned with an explosive nature, and the flames doubled their height in just a few moments, then would die down. The cones, however, would continue to burn for a half-hour or longer, then drop off and help spread the fire in that manner. After witnessing the effect of the fires on all types of plants of the area, I can say emphatically that I am very displeased with the pines."

The fire didn't even have to touch the junipers according to Miller. "When they got sufficiently hot, they would explode into flames."

There were four types of plants that Miller said "actually contributed to saving my home." These he listed as the California pepper, the cape honeysuckle, Myoporum and Pittosporum. The ice plant (Aizoaceae) also was very effective in putting down a fire. "When the fire would get to the ice plant, the fire would just lay down and smoulder," he said.

"I was surprised at the citrus, macadamia and avocado," he added. "Though terribly scorched, they would still maintain their foliage. The fire would almost die out at that point of trying to get through those trees." The stone fruits, however, peach, apple, plum, etc., would add fuel to the fire and burn with intensity.

Miller emphasized that the native plants he has listed in the fire-resistant category needed additional explanation.

"In their natural setting," he said, "many of the shrubs are considered highly flammable, and will explode into a flaming fury when ignited."

"This may be true of these plants in nature where duff build-up is high and plants are crowded, but when they are occasionally raked around and watered, as well as planted in a reasonably-spaced landscaped design, these plants prove to be among the most fire-resistant available."

"Not only do they require a tremendous amount of heat to initiate burning, but of those that may burn, most will regenerate new growth from their bases."

Miller said that other more obvious advantages of the native plants are their generally vigorous growth, and their ability to afford a much more natural setting for those who enjoy blending in their surroundings.

For persons interested in replanting to prevent or minimize fire danger around the home, Miller suggested the following: that families keep large trees from growing near the eaves of their homes - especially pines which will quickly incinerate a home. Another suggestion is to provide open areas around a home to keep back the approach of a wild fire.

"I have a greater appreciation for lawns than I had before," he said, adding that they serve as protective buffers around a home.

And as pretty as the bougainvillea is, Miller discouraged it use near a home. "Once it goes, it takes everything around it," Miller said. The woody buildup beneath the vine spreads a fire." Miller said he would definitely not espaliar the plant against a house's wall.

In the following list Miller has marked the native [California] plants with asterisks (*).

He made mention also that all vegetation will burn given enough heat, but from his observations has determined those with better fire-resistant qualities.

Most AizoaceaeMoraea iridioides
Most CrassulaceaeIris
Most CactaceaeAlnus *
Most PortulacaceaeBaccharia pilularis *
Myoporum Citrus trees (Rutaceae)
Pittosporum Buxus
Schinus Feijoa sellowiana
Salix *Chrysanthemum
Rhus * Avocado (Persea americana )
Nerium oleander Macadamia
Tecomaria capensis

Salvia * Solanum
Rhamnus (marginal) * Magnolia grandiflora
Ceanothus (marginal) * Schefflera actinophylla
Heteromeles arbutifolia * Hedera
Quercus agrifolia * Acacia
Platanus racemosa * Ligustrum
Ribes * Grewia caffra
Prunus Callistemon
Juglans Casimiroa edulis
Araucaria heterophylla Xylosma
Olea europaea

Pinus Cortaderia selloana
Juniperus Gelsemium sempervirens
Bougainvillea Hakea suaveolens
Phormium tenax