Fire Safety

From Fire Safe San Diego

Fire-resistant plants are those that do not readily ignite from a flame or other ignition sources.  These plants can be damaged or even killed by fire; however, their foliage and stems do not significantly contribute to the fuel and, therefore, the fire’s intensity.  There are several other significant factors that influence the fire characteristics of plants, including plant moisture content, age, total volume, dead material, and chemical content.
Fire-resistant does not mean fireproof! Even fire-resistant plants will burn if not well maintained.  Be sure to keep all of your land-scape plants healthy with appropriate water-ing, proper pruning, etc.

San Diego Fire Safe Council


January 14, 2019 letter sent from Chaparral Institute founder Rick Halsey:

Dear Friend of the Chaparral,

I wanted to share with you the letter about wildfire that we just sent to California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom. We will be testifying this week at the Capitol about it all. Wish us luck.

Dear Governor Newsom,

Encouraged by the spirit of hope that your new administration brings to Sacramento, we urge you to take the lead in creating a new wildfire policy based on science rather than tradition.

Why? Because the traditional approach to wildfire protection is backward. It focuses on vegetation rather than what we want to protect – our homes and families.

Homes burn because they are flammable and are built on fire-prone landscapes. Most structures ignite during wildfires because of flying embers that can travel a mile or more from the fire front. This is why so many families have lost their homes even though they have complied with defensible space regulations – their homes were still vulnerable to embers. This is why communities far from wildland areas, like Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, have been destroyed during wildfire and why entire neighborhoods have burned to the ground while the trees around them have not (see Fig. 1 below). This is why fuel breaks, twelve-lane highways, and even large bodies of water fail to protect our homes during wind-driven wildfires.

However, there is hope. While wildfire is inevitable, the destruction of our communities is not.

Jack Cohen, a former lead fire scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, has demonstrated this through decades of research. To stop wildfire disasters in our communities we must accept some basic principles based on science, especially with climate change and increasing numbers of people living next to wildlands. First among them is that the wildfire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.

Focusing on forests and dead trees far from our communities most at risk or habitat clearance projects that have little value during wind-driven fires will only guarantee more of the same – continued catastrophic losses.

To stop the destruction of our communities by wildfire we must focus on strategies that will work in our rapidly changing environment: reduce the flammability of existing communities and prevent new ones from being built in very high fire hazard severity zones.

To read more, please view our entire letter here:

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Figure 1. Camp Fire, showing the devastation of homes in the Kilcrease Circle community of Paradise. Note the surrounding green, mature forest with little or no scorching. The homes were not burned by a high-intensity crown fire, but were ignited by embers, followed by home-to-home ignitions. Photo: Digital Globe, a Maxar company via Reuters, 11/17/2018.

Rick Halsey

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He goes on to recommend the state should focus on:
“features that reduce flammability – ember – resistant vents, fire – resistant roofing and siding , and exterior sprinklers – and focus vegetation management on the immediate 100 feet surrounding homes.”

Here is another quote from UC Ag & Natural Resources UC Extension for Marin and Sanoma County “Fire Safe Planting”

The short version of the story is this: There are very few plants that are “fire safe”. Most plants have some woody structure, and wood burns. There is such a thing as fire safe landscaping.

Fire safe landscaping is primarily a function of how the landscape is designed, and how it is maintained. Plant species selection is a relatively minor component.

There are some plants that are basically made to burn: they are adapted to environments where fires are routine, and they depend on these fires for regeneration and reducing competition from other plants.  They do this by burning fiercely when ignited, and generally ignite easily.  Greasewood, chemise, knobcone pine, and some eucalyptus species are all good examples of this.  These plants should generally not be part of a landscape plan that includes fire safety.

There are a few plants that are “fire safe”.  However, not everyone is willing to live in a landscape populated solely with Aloe vera, chard, and snapdragons.  And even plants that we routinely think of as “fire safe” can burn if not cared for properly.  Even iceplant.

In some instances, a “fire safe plant list” may give property owners a false sense of security.  Homeowners who believe that their properties are “fire safe” due to the species they’ve selected may be less worried about maintaining their landscapes.  Why worry, right?  Every plant on the property is from a “fire safe” plant list!

Most of us are familiar with the coast live oak.  The species is almost as associated with California as the redwood tree.  Most fire-safe plant lists list coast live oak as fire safe.  And yet a neglected coast live oak, with lots of interior deadwood and a canopy that grows all the way to the ground, can be a giant torch waiting to ignite.  That same tree CAN be very fire safe if it has adequate access to water, has a canopy trimmed up off of the ground, and has few dead twigs in the canopy.  Maintenance and design, not species selection, is the key.

For more information on designing fire safe landscapes, please see UC Ag & Natural Resources publication Home Landscaping for Fire

A fire resistant landscape approach will maintain a 100’ defensible space around homes by removing combustible materials and having hardscape features with high moisture/low flammability plants to limit potential fire fuels. Careful spacing with low-growing native, drought-tolerant plants is best to resist fire, although no plant is fireproof. Keep plants from creating a fire ladder up trees and select trees with low sap or resin (such as hardwoods like our lovely oaks) instead of highly flammable pines and eucalyptus. Images below explain defensible space standards.

Lessons learned from the Thomas fire in the Ojai Valley: All plants can burn given the right conditions of excessive wind, heat, exposure, lack of rainfall etc. Oak trees that have have not been maintained and cleared of dead branches are more fire prone so the key is maintenance and placement.

To protect your home, creating defensible space around your home is a must during fire season. There are many things you can do. Here is a list, not in order of priority.

1. Installing metals screens on vents to keep embers out. More info on installation of vents here.

2. Care should be taken to not place fire prone plants adjacent to any structures and preferably not within 30 feet of the house. Info on plants that are highly flammable and should be avoided is here.

FIRE SAFE Landscapes and Plant LISTS  See the attached lists from San Diego and Santa Barbara. 
FIREWISE PLANT List Info from San Diego

From California Native Plant Society, the Fire Recovery Guide 

3. Remove highly flammable plants.  Examples of include ornamental juniper, Italian cypress, Leyland cypress, rosemary, arborvitae, eucalyptus, and some ornamental grasses. Remove “high fire hazard” plants. I still see Mexican feather grass around town, with very dry clumps that spread easily into crack and crevices surviving on little to no water.  More info on invasive qualities is HERE The slightest wind sends the delicate seeds heads into motion. It is very flammable and invasive. See CAL INVASIVE PLANTS COUNCIL and look for the high risk plants (unbelievable but true, some are still sold in nurseries).

Also see Santa Barbara High Fire Hazard Area Landscape Requirements in City of Santa Barbara, Fire Prevention Bureau,  Ordinance #5779

Plants to AVOID

See Fire Safe Marin for information and pictures of plants to avoid or remove:

Unacceptable plant species prepared by Santa Barbara City Fire Dept:

4. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

Up to 70% of water can evaporate from the soil on a hot day if you don’t have mulch as a protective layer on top.  Mulch is one of the best moisture holding strategies you can employ.  It prevents evaporation from the soil surface, helps suppress water-thieving weeds from growing and many mulches decompose to add vital nutrients to the soil at the same time.

Avoid fine mulches that tend to clump and become water-repellent.  Instead, use a coarser mulch which allows water/rain to move down through to the soil.  A depth of 2-3″ in a garden bed is ideal.  Apply mulch onto moist soil and water in well.

During Santa Ana wind and fire season, understand the combustability of various types of mulch with composted wood chips the best.  More info in this report, where various mulches were tested.

5. See resources of the state and local Fire Safe Councils (FSC) to understand how to create defensible space on your property.  FSC are volunteer organizations committed to improving local fire safety through preparedness and homeowner education and training. Find our local Council website link below:
California Fire Safe Council | Mobilizing Californians to protect their …
Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council
Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council
Mendocino Fire Safe Council

6. Install a roof top irrigation system to water down roof tops.  Very effective when irrigation is set on a timer with a pump (solar fed) to run off a dedicated rain tank, pool or pond.  More info on how they do it in the fireside areas of Canada is here:

7.  Install rain gardens and rain tanks to capture roof runoff.  This will help saturate soils and provide extra moisture to develop healthy soils that act like a sponge to retain water in the landscape or in storage tanks.

8. Needing to rebuild after fire?  Here are landscape design templates:- these free, Easy-to-Permit Landscape Design Templates for the Fire Rebuild were developed by Sonoma-Marin Partnership to help get permits approved quickly for residential redevelopment.


11/17/18 New York Times article – “In California, Once Community {OJAI} Reflects on a Fire as Others Still Burn” link HERE

Video of event at the Ojai Valley Museum – The Ojai Fires: Thomas and the Next One

LA TIMES Forget curb appeal — when it comes to fire-safe landscaping, think embers, meadows and ‘defensible space’

California Native Plant Society Fire Recovery Guide

 Home Landscaping for Fire

Climate, Fire, and Habitat in Southern California

Southern California Guidebook to S.A.F.E. Landscapes

Home Survival in Wildfire Prone-Areas:  Building Materials and Design Considerations

 Other helpful information:

Post Fire Restoration – “Do’s and Dont’s

Soil Quality Resource Concern-Hydrophobicity

Fire Safe San Diego