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Proper Landscaping Prevents Wildfire Damage

The summer of 2000 has produced a spate of western wildfires. Fed by dry, hot conditions, fires have ravaged communities in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and other states, leading President Clinton to declare a disaster in much of the affected region making it eligible for federal assistance. The impact on homeowners can be catastrophic. Even if you don't lose your home, the disruption of evacuation and emotional trauma of seeing parts of your community destroyed are never forgotten.

So, what can a homeowner do about wildfires? Surprisingly, there's a lot you can do, starting with how you landscape your property. Known as "Firewise" Landscaping, it's the first step in suppressing wildfires around your home, and slowing their progress in your community. First, understand what a fire needs to burn-- fuel, heat and oxygen. The goal of your landscape plan is to rob any wildfire of fuel. You do that by paying attention to what you're planting and where. Avoid highly flammable vegetation, especially near your home. In addition, maintain your property and remove dead vegetation that could become kindling in a fire emergency.

Overall, strive for keeping the plant volume low in order to limit the available fuel. Maintain a limited number of healthy plants in your landscape, the healthier the more fire-resistant. Dry, dead or untended vegetation creates an extreme fire hazard. Choose plants that retain water. Consult with your local nursery and don't overlook native plants that maintain their moisture such as cacti.

Think of your property in terms of zones emanating from your home. The inner zone, or Zone 1, extends 30 feet from the home. Keep this buffer zone well irrigated. If you live on a hill, you'll need more than 30 feet to slow the fire's progress because of the tendency for fires to burn more intensely uphill. Do not plant trees or any resinous vegetation, and keep the area free of dead vegetation. How do you know if a tree is resinous and easy burning? Try snapping off a twig and sniffing it, resin has a unique odor, especially in an evergreen plant. Emphasize low-growing, moisture-retaining species. Zone 2 is the next concentric circle outside of the 30-foot buffer zone. Low-growing plants and periodic irrigation are good ideas, here, too. Zone 3, the next circle, is where you can begin considering trees, but spaced well apart from each other. In a larger yard, or adjacent lots that are vacant, Zone 4 is a natural area that needs to be pruned and cleared of dead branches and brush. Selectively remove plants (especially volatile plants) to keep vegetation to a minimum.

The goal of firewise landscaping is fire suppression. Work with your neighbors and community association on a neighborhood landscape and maintenance plan, and you'll greatly reduce everyone's risk, and avoid the tragedy and heartbreak that every homeowner fears from wildfires.

Sources used to create this article include Judith Leraas Cook, from Leraas Cook & Associates, Dayton, Ohio

Copyright © 2001, AHA, the American Homeowners Association, Stamford, Connecticut, USA All Rights Reserved.