Get prepared for this year’s fire season

July 16, 2012

By Chriss Street

California is one of the worst fire zones in the nation.  As we go to press, there are at least 10 major fires and more than 55,000 acres of California burning.  Major incidents include the Robbers Fire in Placer County, Mill Fire in Colusa County, Flat Fire in Trinity County, Panorama Fire in San Bernardino County, Sites Complex in Colusa County, Twin Fire in Riverside County, Seven Fire in Tuolumne County, La Grange Fire in Tuolumne County, Turkey Fire in Monterey County and the Fish Fire in Inyo County.

Every year thousands of acres burn, causing billions of dollars in damages and often the loss of life.  According to statistical studies of fires, geography is the most important factor.  Simply put, your home will be more likely to burn down if you build a home in a wind corridor, on a steep slope or in a remote location surrounded by wilderness.

But sometimes entire suburban communities burn down.  In preparing for this year’s fire season, I hope the following suggestions help protect your family from financial or personal loss this year:


  1. Going it alone puts you at greater risk than living near other people. Living in a place that’s frequently dangerous isn’t smart.
  2. Most fires are started by flying embers carried by winds up to a couple of miles ahead of the fire front, not by radiant heat or the fire front itself.  If your home is vulnerable to fires started by embers, your home will be much more likely to burn.
  3. Homes surrounded by improperly maintained vegetation are more likely to burn.


  • Remove vegetation that touches or is very close to the home.
  • Plant and maintain non-native landscaping or grow vegetables for “foodscaping” in the area around your home.  Keep native “brush” at a distance.
  • Trim trees of dead branches and remove dead grass.


Defensible Space is the landscape between your house and the potential fuel source (dense stands of native or naturalized vegetation) that is your responsibility as a homeowner to maintain to reduce fire risk.  It is important to create two Brush Management Zones with different requirements.  It is common for municipal building codes to require a total of 100 feet of defensible space from the structure.

BRUSH MANAGEMENT ZONE 1 typically extends 35 feet out from the structure towards the flammable vegetation on the level portion of your property:

* Generally must be permanently irrigated to maintain succulent growth.
* Should consist primarily of low-growing plant material, less than four feet in height with the exception of trees.  lants should be low-fuel and fire-resistive.
* Other than the trunk, all portions of trees which extend within ten feet of a structure or the outlet of any chimney should be cut back.
* Trees adjacent to or overhanging any building must be free of dead wood.
* Roof and rain gutters of any structure must be free of leaves, needles, or other dead vegetative growth.
* Fences, gazebos and decks should be non-combustible and/or have a minimum one-hour fire resistance rating.
* Irrigation from Zone 1 must not run onto Zone 2, because it will encourage growth of flammable vegetation.

BRUSH MANAGEMENT ZONE 2 is the remaining 65 feet that extends beyond Zone 1 and is usually comprised of  native and/or naturalized vegetation:

* Should have NO permanent irrigation.
* Must be thinned and pruned on a seasonal basis to reduce the fuel-load of vegetation greater than 24 inches in height.


Step 1:  Remove as much dead wood/vegetation along with all weeds as you can within the Brush Management Zone areas.

Step 2:  Thin the entire Zone 2 area.  Start by cutting down 50 percent of  the plants over two feet in height to a height of  six inches. Don’t go any lower than six inches so the roots remain to control soil erosion.  The goal is to create a “mosaic” or more natural look, so do your cutting is in a “staggered” pattern.  Leave uncut brush in groupings up to 400 square feet — that’s a 20 X 20-foot area, or an area that can be encircled by an 80-foot rope — separated by groupings of plants cut down to 6 inches.

Step 3:  Thinning should be prioritized as follows:

1. Invasive non-native species = weeds;
2. Flammable native species;
3. Native species;
4. Non-native species.

Remaining plants, four feet or more in height, should then be cut and shaped into “umbrellas.”  This means pruning one half of the lower branches to create umbrella-shaped canopies.  This allows you to see and deal with what is growing underneath.

Upper branches may then be shortened to reduce fuel load as long as the canopy is left intact. This keeps the plant healthy, and the shade from the plant canopy reduces weed and plant growth underneath.  Non-woody vegetation that is less than four feet in height, like coastal sage scrub, should be cut back to within 12 inches of the root crown.

Step 4:  Dispose of the cuttings and dead wood by either hauling it to a landfill; or, by chipping/mulching it on-site and spreading it out in the Zone 2 area to a depth of not more than 6 inches.

Step 5:  Thin & Prune annually, because plants will grow back.

These fire prevention preparations will not guarantee that you do not suffer damages from fires.  But being prepared will dramatically increase the likelihood that your family will be safer than your neighbors if a fire burns in your community.  For further information, please contact your county fire authority or city fire department.

Be Safe!

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