11-15-19 | News

Re-landscaping After a Fire

by Douglas Kent, best selling author and professor

Driveways communicate vital information to fire fighters: is the home in good repair; is there space enough to stage a large defense; and can they, the responders, easily turn around and flee if necessary?
With its big and easily bent leaves, coral bells (Heuchera spp.) is fire resistant.
Wide and stable paths surrounded by non-flammable materials and well maintained plants means that this landscape will enable-not hinder-emergency responders.
A shade structure in fire country should be disconnected from a structure, constructed from fire-resistant materials, and be pitched to allow firebrands and heat an easy escape.

Most places where fire strikes once are prone to more fires so their landscapes should be rebuilt with certain goals, such as being inviting and accommodating to emergency responders-our health and wellbeing depend on it.
Driveways, pathways and shading structures can be designed and maintained to provide much of this needed security. Driveways invite and welcome emergency personnel, pathways accommodate their hasty work, and shade structures protect-not endanger-them. Below are the essential elements of each.

During a conflagration emergency personnel have to decide, and sometimes in a matter of seconds, which homes are the best use of their equipment, time and lives. The driveway is their first impression. A good driveway will safely lead emergency personnel to a home or business. An effective driveway will have these characteristics:
• Address - The property's address is posted at the driveway's entrance.
• Visibility - The house is visible from the driveway's entrance, so the fire fighters know what they are rushing in to.
• Width - The width of the driveway is no less than 8 feet, 10 feet is better, with a cross slope of 2%.
• Proximity - The driveway is as close as possible to the home or structure.

Landscape Pathways
Whether fleeing or fighting, rapid travel is essential. Garden paths are a critical component of emergency mobilization. Pathways should be readily identifiable and easily navigated. The key characteristics of a good path are:

• Width - The path should be at least 4 ft wide and able to accommodate two-way traffic and heavy equipment.
• Surface - The surface will be even, stable, and non-skid (which means no screed concrete).
• Slope - The slope of a path should never exceed 5%, which is a 1-ft rise over a 20-ft length. Ramps, which are made from non-skid concrete, are the exception and their slope should never exceed 8.3%.
• Handrails - Handrails must accompany steps, which not only benefits the frail, but also people hauling heavy equipment.
• Lighting - Recommended on critical paths, such as those that lead from a road to a structure, lighting makes a huge difference in times of low visibility.

Shade Structures
Arbors, gazebos and pergolas provide charm and shade, but they also add a lot of fuel. Shading devices are typically made from soft woods, attached to structures and are prone to ignition.
Below are the elements of a less flammable structure:
• Fire-Resistant Wood - All structures must be built from lumber with at least a 1-hour fire-resistant rating. Although more expensive, steel posts are
even better.
• Treated - Maintaining a shade structure with paint or stain-preferably fire/heat resistant-not only extends the life of the wood, but also fills the wood's fissures, reducing opportunities for firebrands, insects and fungus.
• Encourage Air Circulation - Shade structures can trap firebrands and heat, creating greater chances of ignition. Always ensure good air circulation by keeping the structure off the home and pitching its roof.

Vegetation will either lead a fire to a structure or stop it. But picking the right plants from the thousands commercially available can be confusing. Instead of memorizing plant lists, learn to identify the physical characteristics of a less flammable plant.

A Less Flammable Plant Will Have
• Large and broad leaves rather than needle and blade-like leaves.
• Moist and easily bent leaves instead of stiff and leather-like leaves.
• Thick leaves rather than fine or thin leaves.
• A low amount of litter instead of a lot of duff.
• Sap that looks more like water opposed to thick, gummy or resinous sap.
• Leaves without a fragrance, opposed to a strong aroma.
• Leaves that are silver or gray.
• Leaves without hair (cilia).
At some point every plant will burst into flames-maintenance determines fire protection, not plant selection. If a plant is diseased, old, and/or too twiggy, it is far more flammable as a consequence and should be removed.

For more information about fire resistant plants, consult Firescaping, FireSafe and Firewise plant guides, UC Extension educational literature, and regional recommendations from nurseries.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, October 2019.

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