EDUCATION, EVENTS & ARTICLESBoulder County Home & Garden
Fire-fighting LandscapesHow to safeguard your mountain home for wildfire season
By Tyera Eulberg
The cloud-less weather we Coloradoans brag about is back with a vengeance. The burning sun pushes temperatures to 100 degrees and parches the landscape, despite our heavy snow runoff and a wet spring, leaving our crackly grasses and trees ready to go up in a blaze. Wildfire season menaces. While concrete, brick and paved roads protect Boulder's urban areas, the danger of forest fires in the foothills is very real.
Beyond arson and careless campfires, the myriad unpredictable causes of wildfires (lightning, coal-seams, etc...) mean forest fires may threaten the most conscientious resident. But sensible landscaping precautions can help protect your mountain home.
The goal is to create a defensible space in an otherwise fire-prone area, says Bill Melvin, co-owner of Ecoscape Environmental Design and a landscaper specializing in fire-resistant plots. In untouched forests, he says, fires work to naturally thin the trees every 10 to 20 years. But in the miles surrounding inhabited plots, the U.S. Forest Service works to suppress fires. "So we end up with a very unhealthy forest ecosystem," Melvin says, overly abundant and packed with brush, tall grass and dead trees ready to go up in flames. The answer, then, is to carefully manage the area near your home, returning it to healthier, less flammable conditions.
Keep a Tight Leash on Grasses
Start on the forest floor, Melvin suggests. While most of us picture flames licking the tops of 40-foot trees, the biggest threat is from burning grass. Modifying the land to build a home disturbs the low-growing natural grass of the foothills area, according to the Boulder County Department of Land Use. Replacement grasses (often foreign species from birdseed) spread in thick mats, grow tall and then dry out, allowing flames to spread quickly and climb to low branches or house eaves.
Eliminate grass completely from a 3-foot swath around your home and replace it with stone mulch. "That little strip can sometimes be the one factor that makes a house survive a grassfire," Melvin says. Then, for another 30 or 40 feet from the house, prune grasses short, preventing them from becoming "ladder fuel" to carry a fire up into the trees.
And do it now, Melvin says. "Grasses in Colorado are our biggest fire danger. They're so tall right now, and drying out as we speak. But they're also slowing down on their growth, so if you mow now, you might not have to do it again for the entire summer."
Thin those Trees
Next, turn to your trees. Dead wood, fallen branches and beetle-killed pines catch fire easily, and like grasses, carry flames to the forest canopy. Starting next to your house and working your way out to 100 or 200 feet, prune off dead woody matter and bring down lifeless trees. As for live trees, remove low limbs as well as intact small trees that could serve as ladder fuel. Then, thinning becomes more complicated.
"It's a matter of analyzing the forest health," Melvin says. The remaining forest is often still too thick, so live trees must be felled. Aspens rarely come down, since deciduous trees are not very flammable. But many coniferous trees should. Among the pines, Melvin looks for the healthiest trees to maintain, often the largest diameter trees. "But certainly aesthetics become a part of the process," he says. "Screening, privacy and windbreaks are all things we take into account."
(A tip: mountain communities often organize slash collection days to chip up and dispose of cut limbs and branches en masse. For more information, contact Boulder County Land Use Department's wildfire mitigation group at 303-441-3930.)
Focus on Fire-smart Flowers
A sensible mountain landscape needn't be only short-cut grass and clean forest, however. Plenty of perennial species offer beautiful groundcover with low flammability. Sedums, hens and chicks and other succulents are especially good, Melvin says, because they retail a lot of moisture in juicy leaves. But lilies, day lilies and lavender are also fine choices. Even coneflowers and Black-Eyed Susans offer some fire-resistance. "You don't have to sacrifice any beauty," Melvin says. "You just need to work with someone who has the knowledge of appropriate plant species."
There is even a place for shrubs in the fire-resistant landscape, though they should be far away from coniferous trees. Keep shrubs separated by open space, Melvin suggests, or pair them with moist aspens. But above all, avoid juniper–the bushes have been known to explode into flame before a fire even reaches them.
Use Other Elements: Stone and Water
Beyond plants, a number of landscaping techniques can help protect your house. Pathways, flagstone or gravel paths make breaks in the organic matter, while stone walls can actually act as firebreaks as well as deflect the heat of a fire coming up a slope. More important is the use of water, Melvin says. "A lot of it is taking roof water and utilizing it in your landscape." Roof runoff can be funneled through your yard in organically shaped streams, creating wet barriers to forestall flames. These water-catchment systems also allow water to soak into the earth and passively feed garden plants, moistening the whole area, and making it less fire-prone. "Water features serve well for that too," Melvin says, "with the added benefit that they can serve as a water resource right where ever you need it."
Furthermore, it is easier to retrofit an already-established landscape with stone and water elements than it may be to rip out and replant the entire flora. (However, you must target and remove the most highly flammable plants even so.) Melvin has helped some mountain homeowners install small, specifically placed water catchments and irrigation systems to be turned on to protect the house only if the residents have to evacuate. "It can be very effective," he says. "You can hone in on the defensible space."
Melvin recommends consulting with an expert for more information about specific fire-resistant plants, and to plan stone or water firebreak features. Both the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the Boulder County Land Use Office are fine sources on how to "fire-proof" your landscape through design, plant choice and forest thinning. A particularly comprehensive document is: Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones
To contact Ecoscape about their fire-resistant landscapes, call 303-447-2282 or visit www.ecoscapedesign.com.