Defensible space tips for forested regions

Heat and high winds approach as a man comforts a distraught man amid burning homes and low visibility as the Arrowhead fire pushes into the Del Rosa area of San Bernardino.

Heat and high winds approach as a man comforts a distraught man amid burning homes and low visibility as the Arrowhead fire pushes into the Del Rosa area of San Bernardino.

If a major wildfire were to burn through your neighborhood, would your house survive on its own?

Many homeowners assume a fire engine will be parked in their driveway and firefighters will be actively defending their home in the event of a large fire. But when a major fire enters an area called the wildland-urban interface, such as a subdivision, it is unlikely that there will be enough firefighting resources available to defend every home.

Firefighters will select homes that can be protected safely and effectively.

To ensure a home stands the greatest chance of surviving a blaze, homeowners must landscape so a fire's intensity is reduced as it closes in on the structure. Actions taken by the homeowner before a major fire play the biggest role in ensuring a house's survival, experts say.

And while defensible space makes sense, it is also the law, and violating defensible space requirements can cost homeowners up to $500 in California.

Tips to help homeowners maintain a fire-resistant area around their homes:

• The law requires that you create at least 30 feet of defensible space around your home (or up to your property line if it is less than 30 feet from your home). However, in high-hazard areas, such as the mountainous Lake Tahoe region, experts recommend a larger buffer. That is especially important if you live in an area with medium to tall brush or trees or your house is on a slope. If so, you may need up to 200 feet of defensible space to give firefighters a chance to properly defend your home during a large fire.

Specific requirements vary according to local conditions, and most local fire agencies will provide homeowners with personalized defensible space consultations and recommendations if asked.

• The three R's of defensible space:

Removal involves eliminating entire plants from a site, particularly trees and shrubs. Examples include cutting down a dead tree or removing a flammable shrub.

Reduction involves removing parts of plants, such as dead branches on trees and shrubs, and low-hanging tree branches. Also includes mowing dried grasses in a yard.

Replacement involves substituting less flammable plants in place of more hazardous vegetation. Planting an irrigated flowerbed where a stand of dense brush used to be is an example.

• Your roof is the most vulnerable part of your house because wind-blown sparks from a nearby fire can set roofing materials or debris built up on the roof ablaze. Therefore, make sure to remove pine needles, leaves and other debris from your roof and gutters and cut down any dead branches overhanging your roof. Also, if your roofing material is flammable (such as wood shakes), consider re-roofing with materials with at least a Class C fire resistance classification.

• "Fire resistant" plants are those that are less likely to burn than others, however, there is no such thing as a plant that will not burn. All plants will burn if there is enough heat and other conditions are right.

• Prune dead limbs from trees, especially those that are low to the ground.

• Leave space between shrubs and trees to cut down on the "ladder fuels" that exist on your property. Ladder fuels are bushes, shrubs, and low branches that allow a ground fire to make its way up into the canopy of larger trees.

• Plant lawns, succulent ground covers, or other low-growing plants near structures, and water them regularly.

• Do not allow continuous tree canopies or brush next to buildings.

• Clear all vegetation and other flammable materials from beneath decks. Enclose the undersides of elevated decks with fire resistant materials.

Recommended practices within defensible space areas:

• Standing dead trees should be removed.

• Down dead trees that are not embedded in the ground should be removed. Downed trees that are embedded into the soil and which cannot be removed without soil disturbance should be left in place with all exposed branches removed.

• Dead shrubs should be removed.

• Dried grasses and wildflowers should be cut down and removed.

• Pine needles can be left on the ground away from structures as long as the depth of the needles is less than 2 inches. Piles deeper than this should be removed or spread out. Remove all dead growth from trees and shrubs to a height of 15 feet above ground, and all debris that accumulates on roofs and in rain gutters. Remove dead leaves, twigs, pine cones and branches.

• Firewood should be located at least 30 feet uphill from the house.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment