Fire-resilient Landscapes

Fire-resilient Landscapes

Being prepared is our responsibility – and can include native plants

El Dorado County sits within one of the highest fire hazard risk area of the State. And though fire is a natural part of our ecosystem, we’ve seen how it can also pose great risk to homes and lives. Living here then, we have the responsibility to make our homes as fire resilient as possible. This is true whether we live in town, or out in the woods.

That does NOT mean we need to create moonscapes on our land. It does mean we need to take fire seriously, and spend the time and money to make our homes as safe as possible.

fire safe graphicFour things must be addressed in preparing for wildfire:

  • A nonflammable zone 5 feet out from the entire house and any decks
  • More nuanced Defensible space out 100 ft (or more if on a hill)
  • “Hardening” our Homes to withstand flame and far flying embers.
  • Roadside thinning- similar to the defensible space 5-100 ft zone

All four of these must be worked on- defensible space alone is not enough.

The critical 5 foot zone next to your house

Studies show that if you can keep a non flammable zone for just 5 feet out from your entire house, the chances of your house igniting in a wildfire are greatly reduced. That’s because so many homes catch on fire from embers blowing in from one or miles away, rather than from an actual wall of flames.

  • No vegetation here, no flammable mulch like bark
  • Stick to hardscape, like rock paths and patios, or even bare dirt (the native bees will love that last part!)
  • Remove overhanging tree limbs
  • Don’t leave anything flammable, like wooden furniture, fences, brooms, or wood piles in this zone, or under decks! Some say you shouldn’t even store your plastic trash cans here.

You may balk at the idea of removing your “foundation” plants, but they just don’t make sense in the Sierra foothills we’ve chosen as home.   Focusing on design with low plants out beyond that 5 foot zone can actually be a nice change- you’ll see them better from your windows!

The 5-100 ft zone: Having some trees and bushes is okay

  • Remove all dead and dying plant material, including that hidden deep in shrubs and trees,
  • Mow annual grasses and weeds to 2-4 inch height. Consider mowing around wildflowers!
  • Limb up trees 6 feet or more- but not more than 1/3 of a tree height (to maintain tree’s health),
  • Choose which trees/shrubs you especially want to save (shade, wildlife value, pretty, etc.). Remove enough of the trees and shrubs between those specimens to break up a path for fire- both horizontal and vertical.
  • Create a scattered landscape – lots of space between trees and shrubs in the first 30 ft, still some space but not quite as much on out to 100 ft (200 ft if your property is steep),
  • Remove any shrubs acting as “ladder fuels” for trees overhead.   Flames from a shrub can be 3-4 times the height of the shrub.
  • Maintain your defensible space in the future– this is not a do-it-once-and-forget-it-process!

Click here for further references for a fire safe home.

Choosing plants to keep in the 5-100 ft zone

Its hard cutting down plants that you know are good for wildlife, and that you enjoy. But separation between plants is needed to create effective defensible space. Information here focuses on shrubs and trees native to the 2,000 foot elevation in our county, to help you choose specimens to keep. You can also consult Ray Griffith’s plant list, here. Remember though: all plants can burn.   There is no such thing as a fire proof plant- just different degrees of flammability.

Good candidates for removal, especially if small and/or crowded.  (Well-spaced mature native trees can often be kept.)

Highly flammable and/or very common in our area:

     Natives                                                                    Non-natives

     Incense cedar                                                           Juniper

     Douglas fir                                                                Spruce- any

     Pine                                                                            Rosemary

     Live oak                                                                     Other resinous evergreen plants


Worth saving as well-spaced specimens.

Low flammability and high habitat value:

     Black oak                                                                Buckeye                              

     Valley oak                                                               Coffeeberry

     Riparian Plants

Pretty natives to cherish that are not common here. Low to moderate flammability and high habitat value:

     Madrone                                                                    Ash

     Oregon grape                                                           Milkweed patch

     Native Bulbs

High wildlife value but can be flammable- maintain well if saved.

Can get woody: remove dead material regularly.

     Coyote Bush- or it transplants well- can be moved beyond 100 ft zone

     Toyon- Watering occasionally can help it be fire resistant

Hardening your Home against flame and embers

 This is just as important as defensible space, if not more so.  Get more information here. 

 Other websites

Excellent video: 

Cal Fire Risk Maps: