Firewise Landscaping: Plan Your Defensible Space

Combat potential wildfires by planning defensible space around your homestead.

You may be a hearty, self-sufficient new pioneer, but does your home have what it takes to defend itself from one of the most destructive killers ever to roam the countryside? Or would it succumb, becoming another hapless victim of a growing epidemic threatening just about all the hardy souls who live off the beaten path?

Between 2004 and 2013, more than 15,000 homes across the U.S. burned to the ground in wildfires. Sadly, many of those homes might have been saved if only their owners had realized that their landscape could make the difference between life and death for their home.

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I lost my home, and everything we owned, in Colorado’s Crystal Fire in 2011. After we recovered, I wrote Surviving Wildfire, a practical handbook for getting prepared, staying alive and rebuilding your life.

The fire that claimed our home and the homes of 12 of our neighbors was driven by hurricane-force winds. Nothing could have saved our home that night. But in a more typical surface fire that moves along the ground, many homes destroyed burn down because they don’t have smart, defensible space surrounding them.

A Fighting Chance
If you want firefighters to try to defend your home, you have to make the area surrounding it as fire-resistant as possible, because firefighters are trained to focus on homes that have the best chance of surviving, and to walk away from ones they know they can’t save.
But sometimes firefighters can’t reach homes. And in a wildfire there will never be enough equipment or people to park an engine in every driveway. If you want firefighters to try to defend your home, you have to make the area surrounding it as fire-resistant as possible.
Some people think creating defensible space means living in a barren moonscape. But defensible space is about making smart choices that stack the odds in your favor. You can have plants, grass and even bushes and trees. It’s a matter of making your landscape work for you instead of against you. Do your homework and you can slow down a fire, or even stop it in its tracks.

Know The Zones
Defensible space is divided into zones that radiate out from your home. The zone closest to your house is the most important. Think of it as your home’s last line of defense. The less you give a fire to feed on and grow, and the farther away you can keep it from your home, the better the chance your home will survive. As you get farther away from your home, you can have more trees and plantings.

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Even if you live in a swamp, the first 5 feet all around your home should be free of anything that can burn. This is doubly important if your home is made of wood or any other flammable material. If you live in a high- risk, wildfire-prone area, you may want to create a larger no-burn zone. A stone patio or walkway or gravel mulch is ideal. It looks great, requires no maintenance and provides a bar- rier that can cause a surface fire to fizzle out. Don’t compromise your 5 feet by planting anything under your windows, and don’t let any vegetation (or anything else that can burn) touch any part of your home or roof.

Home Defense Zone 1
HDZ-1 extends out to 30 feet from the outer edge of your home and anything attached to it, like a porch or deck. The objective is to keep flames from reaching your house. It’s called Zone 1, but it’s really the last chance you have to stop an advancing flame front. Fire travels uphill much faster than it travels on level ground or downhill, so add another 5 feet for any area that’s downhill from your house, and even more if prevailing winds would blow flames and embers toward you.

Killer Grass: HDZ-1 should have low-growing plants and be free of other things that can burn. Grass, native or otherwise, is fine if you can keep it irrigated and mowed and less than 6 inches high even when it’s dormant. Grass is a flash fuel. Surrounding your house with dry grass is like living in the middle of a pile of kindling. No time to mow? Try a couple of goats. They’ll eat anything and keep your landscape safely cropped.

Fire-Resistant Perennials/Bushes: Plants that are dense, woody or full of resin burn a lot faster than plants with green stems and more open branching. Most county and state forests and many nurseries have lists of fire-resistant plants that are suited to your climate and growing conditions. Don’t plant in a continuous belt around your house; use gravel mulch in be- tween for a firebreak. Plants need to be well watered; if water is in short supply, choose xeriscape plants. Keep the area free of dead branches, leaves and debris, and don’t pile lawn clippings there. Avoid plants that get re- ally tall—the taller the plant, the taller the flames.

Tree Trouble: Experts recommend you remove all trees from HDZ-1, but many people don’t want to part with their favorite shade trees. If you have trees close to the house you don’t want to cut down, treat them as if they are part of your home and start your defensible space from their farthest branches. Remove any branches that hang over or touch your roof, and make sure there are no fuels within 10 feet of your chimney. If you won’t remove your trees or incorporate them into your defensible space, you’re basically saying that you’re willing to sacrifice your home for your trees. Are you?

Home Defense Zone 2
Experts recommend that HDZ-2 extend out at least 100 feet from your home and all structures. In downhill areas it should go out even further; the steeper the slope, the more you need. Unlike humans, fire loves to run uphill.

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The objective of your second defensible-space zone is to slow down an approaching fire by giving it less fuel to feed on the less fuel,the less intensely the fire will burn, and the better chance your home will survive. Massive amounts of fuel create massive amounts of radiant heat—so much heat that a home can catch fire while the actual flames are still 50 feet away.

Ladder Fuels: Ladder fuels are just what they sound like. Fire starts on the lowest rung (dry grass, twigs, woody plants) and then climbs up through the bushes and into the trees. From there it’s an easy climb to the treetops. There are few things that are scarier than watching a fire jumping from treetop to treetop, making a bee- line for your house.

Don’t give fire a rung up. Group trees and tall shrubs into clusters of two or three, with at least 30 feet between plantings. You can use irrigated perennials or fire-resistant bushes in between, but make sure they don’t come within 10 feet of tree limbs—that’s when they turn into ladder fuels. Just like when you start a campfire, wildfire starts at the bottom and works its way up.

Home Defense Zone 3 HDZ-3 is basically designated as “the rest of your property.” It should provide a gradual transition from HDZ-2. The healthiest forest includes trees of different ages, sizes and species, with plenty of room to grow. As always, it’s not a good idea to allow tons of dead trees and debris to pile up, but you can leave a few standing dead snags per acre for wildlife habitat.

MORE DEFENSIVE SPACE INFO
For more on creating defensible space, visit and . Localized info is also usually available from your county and state forestry departments. For a comprehensive list of resources and links, visit survivingwildfire.com.

Editor’s Note: Linda Masterson’s latest book, Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life (A Handbook for Homeowners), is available at Amazon.com.