Firescaping

Firescaping uses fire-resistant designs and materials, in conjunction with careful selection of plants, to strategically resist the spread of fire to your home.

Fire Resistant Landscaping
fire safe landscaping

You don’t necessarily need to spend much money to make your landscaping more fire-resistant. A fire-resistant landscape can increase your property value and conserve water while beautifying your home.

What is Firescaping?

Firescaping is landscape design that reduces house and property vulnerability to wildfire. The goal is to develop a landscape with a design and choice of plants that offer the best defensible space and enhance the property. The idea is to surround the house with things that are less likely to burn. When building homes in wildfire-prone areas, fire safety must be a major consideration in landscape design.  Appropriate design and material selection can make a significant contribution toward wildfire survival.

Firescaping integrates traditional landscape functions and a design that reduces the threat of wildfire. It does not need to look different than a traditional design. In addition to meeting a homeowner’s aesthetic desires and functional needs such as entertaining, playing, storage, and erosion control, firescaping also includes: planting for fire safety, vegetation modification techniques, like separating plants or planting “islands,” use of fire safety zones, and defensible space principles.

Healthy lawn, ground cover, and perennials should form a greenbelt in the home defense zone. Plants that are green and lush give better protection. If regularly watered and maintained to eliminate the accumulation of dry plant litter, these plants will be far less likely to carry fire to your home.

How to Create a Fire-Smart Firescape

  • Create ember and/or ignition-resistant zones with stone or heavy wood retaining walls, patios, swimming pools, decks, walkways, and paths.
  • Use rock, composted or heavy bark mulch, flower beds, and gardens as ground cover for bare spaces and as effective firebreaks.
  • Carefully selected and maintained hedges and screens can “catch” embers before they reach your house if placed in strategic locations.
  • There are no “fire-proof” plants, but some are better choices for landscaping in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) than others.
  • Choose plant species that resist ignition. Learn how to select fire-smart plants in Marin County.
  • Choose broad-leafed hardwood trees that are less flammable than pine, fir, and other conifers. Learn how to select fire-smart trees in Marin County.

Check your with the UCCE Marin Master Gardeners, your local nursery, or landscape contractor for advice on specific plants that are suited for your environment, and help to plan your landscape.

Choose Fire-Smart Plants

See our guidelines for selecting choosing plants and specific species recommendations in Marin County. Some landscape plants are described and marketed as fire-resistant, but Fire Safe Marin and the UCCE Marin Master Gardeners both agree that there are no fire-resistant plants. It is important to remember that, given certain conditions, all plants can burn regardless of how they are classified.  

In general, select plants that are low growing, open structured, and less resinous. How your plants are maintained and where they are placed is as important as the species of plants that you choose. Cultural practices and landscape management (e.g., pruning, irrigation, and cleanup) often have a greater impact on whether or not a plant ignites than does the actual species.  

When choosing plants for firescaping, select those with the following characteristics:

  • High moisture content in leaves (as these ignite and burn more slowly)
  • Deciduous trees are generally more fire-resistant than evergreens because they have higher moisture content when in leaf.
  • Little or no seasonal accumulation of dead vegetation
  • Open branching habits (as they provide less fuel for fires)
  • Fewer total branches and leaves (again, less fuel for fires)
  • Slow growing, so less pruning is required (to keep the plant structure open, as noted above)
  • Non-resinous (i.e., stems, leaves, or needles that are not resinous, oily, or waxy).  Junipers, pines, spruces, and many other conifers are resinous and highly flammable.

Use Non-Combustible Materials

retaining wall kincade fire
In this image from the Kinkade Fire (2019 Sonoma County), a retaining wall prevents the spread of ground fire to the structure and to near-home landscaping, and redirects heat and embers away from the home. Photo credit: Max Whittaker, New York Times.

Retaining walls can disrupt airflow, creating wind “eddies” that may help keep embers away from your house.  Use masonry, gravel, or stone walls to separate plant groups, adding variety and improving the fire resistance of your landscape.

Another way to break up fuel continuity is to use decorative rock, gravel and stepping stone pathways, cement driveways and walkways, and retaining walls, as your landscape’s “hardscape” that will be less flammable.   

Replace bare, weedy, or unsightly patches near your home with ground cover, rock gardens, vegetable gardens, and fire-resistant mulches.  

Use the Right Mulch

bark mulch kincade wildfire
Bark mulch burning near a home that has been destroyed in the Kincade Fire in 2019. Photo credit: New York Times

Mulch conserves moisture, but also burns. Carefully choose the location of plants or garden beds that will need mulch. Mulches are valuable because they conserve moisture, reduce weed growth, and also cover up weed cloth. Compost and large bark chips are usually the best options for fire resistance.

“Gorilla Hair” and other shredded bark mulches should be avoided within 30 feet of any structure. They burn hot and are extremely susceptible to ignition from embers. The Boy Scouts teach fire-starting in survival situations and even sing about shredded bark.

Be careful not to use too much bark mulch in garden beds near your home or outbuildings. In general, fine (less than 1⁄4 inch particles) or stringy mulches ignite and burn more rapidly than larger chunks. When exposed to fire, thick mulch layers (greater than 2 inches deep) tend to smolder and are difficult to extinguish.

Do not use wood or bark mulches within three to five feet of the house. Instead, consider colored rock or other less flammable material. Read this important study on the relative fire resistance of different mulches.

Learn more about fire-resistant mulch.

Irrigation Is Critical

While all plants can burn, healthy ones with a high moisture content will be more difficult to ignite. Proper irrigation for the plant species, soil, and site conditions is critical.

How To Plant & Maintain Vegetation

Healthy lawn, ground cover, and perennials should form a greenbelt in the home defense zone. Plants that are green and lush give better protection. If regularly watered and maintained to eliminate the accumulation of dry plant litter, these plants will be far less likely to carry fire to your home.  

While all plants can burn, healthy ones with high moisture content will be more difficult to ignite. Proper irrigation for the plant species, soil, and site conditions is critical.

The home defense zone can contain an occasional individual shrub or tree – just be sure it is located at least ten feet from the house. By grouping plants of similar height and with similar water requirements, you can create a landscape mosaic that uses water more efficiently and is more likely to slow the spread of fire.

Where to Avoid Planting

Avoid putting plants in the following locations to minimize the movement of fire from vegetation to the home:

  • In the non-combustible zone (zone zero) within five feet of structures
  • Adjacent to siding
  • Under vents or eaves
  • Tree limbs over the roof
  • Under or within five feet of decks

Learn more about plant and tree spacing

Learn how topography influences wildfire risk