With the arrival of fall rains, the wildfire season is, fortunately, over for Western Washington, but we won’t soon forget the week of unhealthy air, the desperate evacuations of people and livestock or the sight of blackened acres in our region. Now would be a good time to evaluate the landscaping around your home to determine how you can keep a wildfire at a safe distance.
Clear a 5-foot area immediately around your house of flammable or dead plants, wood mulch and firewood. Incorporate fire-resistant plants that will not easily ignite or add fuel to the fire. Fire-resistant plants are moist and supple with watery sap and no dead wood or material. Well-watered annuals, perennials, groundcovers, broadleaf evergreens, deciduous shrubs and turf fall into this category. A green, well-maintained lawn mowed to a height of 4 inches can act as a fuel break. Instead of a wood mulch, consider decorative rock or gravel, or incorporate rock into your bark mulch.
Avoid planting highly flammable plants close to your home. Aromatic leaves are a warning sign. Juniper and Eucalyptus are two examples that should be kept at a safe distance, as they will fuel the fire. In general, trees with needles (think aromatic) are more flammable than deciduous trees. However, Western Larch and Ponderosa Pine are the safest conifers due to their thick bark and high moisture content.
When you have created an immediate safe zone, consider what is in the intermediate zone 5 to 30 feet from your home. Trees, or clusters of trees, in this area should be spaced at least 18 feet apart, and the mature canopy should be no closer than 10 feet to a structure. Trees should be limbed up to 6 feet, or one third of smaller trees. They should be pruned to a maximum height of 20 feet. Vines, dry leaves and needles, and flammable undergrowth should be removed. The grass should be kept mowed, as mentioned above. Consider that driveways, sidewalks and patios act as firebreaks.
Further away from your home, 30 to 60 feet, trees should be no closer than 12 feet from crown to crown, and beyond 60 feet, at least 6 feet is recommended. Clearing out and mowing underbrush will reduce the spread of fire. Wildfires are no longer just a distant problem, something to watch on the news in California or Eastern Washington. It is time for all of us to prepare for a fire and protect our homes here in Western Washington. The Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden in Salkum, next to the Timberland Regional Library branch, has a firewise garden that you can visit for more ideas and information.