Plan Now for the Next Bad Fire Season
The NOAA outlook for winter isn't good news for our fire danger next year
This summer’s nearby wildfires have made everyone think long and hard about the non-discriminating chaos Mother Nature can inflict on any home in just an instant. The 2016 winter projections for snowpack and precipitation are not very encouraging and our area of the Northwest may well be in for another year of drought conditions to contend with. While we cannot control precipitation, we can control our susceptibility to fire danger around our home. With a bit of sweat equity and good landscape judgement now, we can greatly increase our home’s chances of not being swept up in a wildfire.
Make sure when you plan your landscape around your home you create a defensible space of 30 to 100 feet of well maintained landscape around your house. Zone 1 is the first 30 feet around your home. Keep any grass within this border watered and mowed, and any dead grass, leaves, weeds or branches should be immediately removed. Trees should be spaced 8 to 10 feet away from the home with branches that do not drape over your roof and the gutters clean of all debris. Ash, Cherry, Birch, Crabapple and Maple are good choices for 1st perimeter shade trees.
When selecting plants for the landscape around your home steer clear of junipers, pine and arborvitae, especially close to the house. Each of these evergreens are dense and their dead needles become trapped inside the plants, providing the perfect habitat for flying embers. These evergreens also have a high volume of sap and pitch which burn hotter. If you want some evergreen color near your home choose Boxwoods, Mahonia (Oregon Grape), or for some flowering color, Dwarf Rhododendrons or ground cover Kinnikinnick (Bearberry). Choose these evergreen or deciduous shrubs that are no more than 2-3 feet high in maturity or easily trimmed. Keep shrubs well spaced out with grass or rock between plantings. When shrubs are packed too tightly together and allowed to get too tall in Zone 1, they provide the perfect “ladder” for fuel and fire to travel up trees and onto the home.
There is a cornucopia of perennials that are below 2 feet tall with interesting textures, heights and hues to highlight around your home. Thick fleshed perennials such as sedum, day lillies and iris hold up well in drought and are versatile, with many different colors to choose from. Lavender, because it is full of natural oils, has a high moisture content, and is a beautiful swath of color to add. Salvia, Yarrow and Penstemon are also fire wise perennials even close up to the house. Be careful to prune out and clean up any dead branches and leaves around plants each spring and again in late fall as the plants die back.
When creating outdoor living spaces think about using more stone, brick, or poured cement for outdoor deck areas and stairways instead of wood, since embers can fly from over a mile away and ignite dry, thirsty wood. If you have a deep enough well, sprinklers for your yard may save your house. Many homeowners who were forced to evacuate simply turned on their irrigation systems and fled with very little choice, and came back to their houses still intact while neighbors were burned.
Nancy Hastings grew up on a 300+-acre farm and now is co-owner of All Seasons Garden and Floral in Sandpoint. She and her husband John have been cultivating community gardens and growing for 16 years in North Idaho. You can reach them with garden questions or sign up for classes at allseasonsgardenandfloral (at)gmail.com.