Do you live in a home or community that is tucked into the woods or surrounded by marsh or shrubs? Then your home may be at risk of exposure to wildfire. You can use firewise landscaping practices to create a survivable space around your home and reduce your risk of damage from a wildfire.

What is Firewise Landscaping?

Firewise landscaping involves creating survivable space by selecting, placing, and maintaining plants around your home that will make it less vulnerable to wildfire. Survivable space is the area extending outward from your home 30 feet or more that is designed to serve as a buffer to slow or stop a wildfire. Survivable space doesn’t mean you cannot have trees in your yard. Nor does survivable space mean that your landscape will be bare or that it won’t attract wildlife. Instead, firewise concepts allow you to make decisions about what you value while taking steps to reduce your risk. By using firewise landscaping, you can decrease the risk of damage to your property from a wildfire.

This publication summarizes some basic firewise concepts to use when creating a landscape around your home. It also provides lists of native plants by their flammability ratings so homeowners can make informed decisions when selecting and maintaining plants. Many of North Carolina’s native plants are well-suited to firewise landscaping—they have evolved to thrive in the state’s soils and climate, are non-invasive, and are best suited to provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for North Carolina’s wildlife.

Figure 1.

A clear example of survivable space around a home. A firewise home has at least 30 feet of space around it that is clear of dead vegetation and flammable debris. Trees and shrubs are pruned, and the landscape consists of healthy, irrigated, fire-resistant vegetation.

Basic Concepts

All vegetation is potential fuel for a fire. There are no “fireproof” plants. But the type, amount, and placement of vegetation can have a dramatic effect on fire behavior. In fact, plant choice, spacing, and maintenance are critical to firewise landscaping.

Survivable space is the area extending outward from the boundaries of your home or structure (Figure 1). The recommended distance for survivable space varies based on the kinds of vegetation around your home and the steepness of the terrain. For homes and other structures on terrain that slopes less than 20 percent, a minimum of 30 feet is recommended for survivable space. For steeper terrain, survivable space may need to extend from the structure as much as 200 feet. To determine how much survivable space is needed for your home, contact your local fire officials, the N.C. Forest Service, or your local Cooperative Extension center.

Plant Choice

Select plants with a low flammability rating for the areas nearest your house. By selecting plants with certain characteristics, you can reduce the flammability potential of your landscape and provide habitat for wildlife. Plants that are resistant to wildfire have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They grow without accumulating large amounts of combustible dead branches, needles, or leaves (example: Cornus florida, flowering dogwood).
  • They have open, loose branches with a low volume of total vegetation (example: Euonymus americana, strawberry bush).
  • They have low sap or resin content (example: many deciduous species).
  • They have high moisture content (example: Impatiens capensis, jewelweed).
  • They grow slowly and need little maintenance, such as pruning (example: Carpinus caroliniana, ironwood).
  • They are short and grow close to the ground (example: Viola pedata, bird-foot violet).
  • They can resprout following fire and thereby reduce the costs of replanting a landscape after a fire (example: Rhus glabra, smooth sumac).

Plant a variety of types and species. Besides being aesthetically pleasing and more attractive to a wide range of wildlife, a variety of plants will help to ensure a healthier landscape by reducing insect and disease problems. Insects and diseases tend to increase in areas where a host plant dominates the landscape. Plants that are stressed from insects and diseases are more flammable because of the loss of vigor and increased amount of dead, dry plant material.

Plant Placement

Keep plants widely spaced. Fire can race rapidly from one plant to another when there is no space between plants. Maintain ample space between plants by placing them in small irregular clusters and islands. This will reduce the threat from wildfire by decreasing the volume of fuel available to a wildfire in your landscape. Do not plant vines or ornamental grasses within the zone of survivable space. Vines and ornamental grasses, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), are extremely flammable plants that can cause a wildfire to spread rapidly. This is especially so if dead growth has not been removed.

Plant Maintenance

Do not forget maintenance. A landscape is a dynamic system that is constantly changing. Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that have a low flammability rating and low fuel volumes can lose these characteristics over time if they are not maintained properly. Conducting seasonal maintenance activities, such as pruning, will help you to maintain the plants’ firewise properties by keeping them green and healthy. When conducting maintenance, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Cut and remove the dried foliage of annual and perennial herbaceous plants.
  • Rake up and dispose of plant litter as it builds up over the season.
  • Mow or trim turfgrass to a low height within the survivable space.
  • Remove all dead branches, twigs, and leaves attached to living trees to a height of 10 feet above the ground.
  • Remove all dead shrubs from within the survivable space.
  • Remove vegetation encroaching on power lines.
  • Remove branches within 15 feet of the chimney and roof.
  • Remove vegetation touching the house or structure.
  • Conduct pruning before the nesting season (April 15 through September 15) to encourage wildlife.
  • Schedule and conduct maintenance with the North Carolina fire seasons (spring and fall) in mind.

Summary

Wildfire can significantly reduce the resources and services produced by North Carolina’s wildlands, including wildlife habitat, recreation, clean water, timber, and scenic beauty. More than 41 percent of North Carolina’s homes are located within the wildland-urban interface, the zone where human development meets or intermixes with wildland vegetation. As the state’s population grows and residential development increases, the risk increases that a wildfire will encroach upon someone’s home and have a significant impact on their lives. Some homeowners may have to deal only with smoke and evacuation. For others, fire often results in destruction of their homes and property. By using firewise landscaping strategies, homeowners can create landscapes with less potential fuel for a fire and minimize the risk of a wildfire spreading to their home.

Additional Resources

Bardon, R., and R. Carter. 2003. Minimizing Wildfire Risk – A Forest Landowner’s Guide. North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Publication no. AG-616. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.

Behm, A. L., A. J. Long, M. C. Monroe, C. K. Randall, W. C. Zipperer, and L. A. Hermansen-Baez. 2004. Fire in the Wildland-Urban Interface: Preparing a Firewise Plant List for WUI Residents. Florida Cooperative Extension. University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla.

Miller, J. H., and K. V. Miller. 1999. Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses. Craftmasters Printing Inc. Auburn, Ala.

Moorman, C., M. Johns, and L. T. Bowen. 2003. Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants. North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Publication no. AG-636-03. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.

National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program. http://www.firewise.org.

National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program. 2003. Firewise Communities: Where We Live, How We Live. Firewise Communities Program. Quincy, Mass.

North Carolina Forest Service. Firewise in North Carolina. http://www.ncfirewise.org/.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2004. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 (http://plants.usda.gov). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, La.

Download

Written by

Published By

Published in July 2005

Learn More About…