As summer wildfire season comes into full swing, Calaveras County residents are being reminded to take precautions to protect their homes.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) recommends clearing defensible space and hardening homes through the use of fire-resistant building materials and the use of fire-resistant landscaping.
Stone walls, patios, decks and roadways can be used to create fire-resistant areas around the home. Rocks, mulches, gardens and flowerbeds can be used to create firebreaks.
While all vegetation increases the risk of wildfire, some plant species pose less of a risk than others, according to experts.
High-moisture plants can be cultivated that grow low to the ground and contain a low amount of sap or resin. Plant species like rockrose, ice plant and aloe have natural fire-retardant properties and can be cultivated instead of other species to decrease wildfire risk.
Fire-resistant shrubs like hedging roses, bush honeysuckles, currant, cotoneaster, sumac and shrub apples can also be planted.
Hardwood trees like maple, poplar and cherry – which are less flammable than pine and fir – can be planted instead of more combustible species.
Other fire-resistant plant options include French lavender, red monkey flower, California fuchsia, sage, California lilac, society garlic, ornamental strawberry, coreopsis and California redbud.
If homeowners must have plants on their properties, the University of California Cooperative Extension recommends the use of hardy, slow-growing plants with open structures that accumulate fuels at a slower pace and require less maintenance.
The organization also advocates for the planting of drought-tolerant native species capable of maintaining a high-water content with a limited amount of water.
According to Bev Vierra-Pennington, the coordinator of the Demonstration Garden at the Government Center in San Andreas for the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Calaveras County, plant maintenance and spacing are much more important than the types of plants cultivated when it comes to fire safety.
“Having a list of plants (that are fire-resistant) is very misleading,” Vierra-Pennington said. “The secret is to plant plants that won’t touch each other at a mature size and are nonwoody.”
Maintaining the plants is equally important. They must be watered regularly and well-trimmed. “It takes work. You can’t plant it and walk away,” she said.
Ground covers like creeping phlox and thyme can be used, but they have to be low to the ground and well-maintained, she said.
Vierra-Pennington warned against landscaping with large wood chips that allow air circulation and are prone to fire, and advised using small chips that can compact down.
She advised people with questions about home gardening to contact the Master Gardener Program, which gives demonstrations and garden tours at the Demonstration Garden throughout the year on the fourth Saturday of the month, except in November, December and January.
The Master Gardeners also offer home gardening assistance through a help line at 754-2880.
Susan Kocher, the natural resources adviser for the UCCE, Central Sierra, warned that all plants are combustible, although some are more so than others.
Home fire safety “usually means taking away vegetation, rather than adding it,” Kocher said. “A more safe landscape would be more sparse.”
Because the vast majority of homes lost to wildfires are the result of embers projected from more distant fires, anything to limit the likelihood of spot fires, like cultivating fire-resistant plants instead of more combustible plant species, is a step in the right direction, Kocher said.
However, landscaping with fire-resistant plants is just one small aspect of home fire safety, which also includes hardening the home with fire-resistant materials and complying with defensible space regulations, she said.
“Where you put the plants is really important,” Kocher said. “They have to be maintained and watered, and in some places you shouldn’t plant anything at all.”
Kocher recommended removing anything combustible, including all vegetation, from around the first five feet of all structures. She said that a bill is currently making its way through the Legislature to codify this practice into the defensible-space regulations.
While cultivating fire-resistant plants instead of more combustible plant species will help to mitigate against wildfire risk, “Don’t think that’s going to solve the problem,” Kocher said. “No plant is really great (when it comes to protecting the home against wildfire), although some are worse than others.”
Guidelines for maintaining defensible space, hardening the home and creating fire-resistant landscaping can be found on Cal Fire’s website, readyforwildfire.org.