An accidental gardener’s attempt at firescaping

I’ll be honest. Fires scare me. Probably more than floods or earthquakes or even tornadoes.

While I haven’t experienced the wrath of tornadoes or floods or earthquakes, I have had my fair share of frightening fire experiences: once when I was a young child watching my neighbor’s house burn; another as an adult when a kitchen grease fire filled my house so quickly with smoke that I had to run out one door and around and in through another door to retrieve my sleeping young son; and yet another when my entire neighborhood was evacuated as a large brush fire swept across a field nearby, heading straight for our addition and getting perilously close to the entrance.

Not once did I consider my landscape, but now I do. Just as I’ve prepared for tornadoes and earthquakes and floods, I am now learning to “firescape,” a concept that was foreign to me until recently.

The need to make my landscape less prone to fire has become more pronounced as of late with the seemingly endless accounts of fires sweeping across our plains; charred expanses of ground evident alongside highways; news accounts of homes and apartments burning while innocent children or beloved pets are trapped inside.

We watch the heroic efforts made to contain fires across the country, such as those recently near Los Angeles where flames swiftly consumed vegetation, leaving nothing to anchor houses and boulders, leaving them to tumble down steep hills with mounds of mud in torrential rains.

While I haven’t experienced the tragic losses that others have, I can understand the fear and panic as you watch and wait, worry and wonder. And now, living in a home with a greenbelt buffer of eastern red cedars (Juniper virginiana) that stretches the length of my back fence, I am working to make my landscape less prone to fire or firewise, if you will.

I realize those junipers provide a good measure of privacy and somewhat of a sound barrier from the traffic beyond them, but they are nevertheless tinder for a simple cigarette thrown carelessly from a car window.

According to the Oklahoma Forestry Services, these evergreens can be highly flammable because their foliage, like that of junipers, pines, firs and spruces, contains volatile oils. But I was relieved when they added this caveat: “…cutting down a red cedar tree in your yard in town makes no sense. The likelihood of it being involved in a wildfire is minimal and the enjoyment that tree gives you makes it worth keeping.”

I admit, I had considered having them removed, but I was pretty sure my neighborhood association would not take kindly to that proposition. However, they did agree to trim them and remove all the seedlings, which will help halt their spread. And I can be somewhat comforted, knowing they sit farther than 30 feet from my house, the measure that experts agree is the most critical defensible space.

This area is what is referred to as Zone 1 in Firewise Landscapes. Within this space, the area up to 10 feet from the house or structure should be plants and shrubs that are low to the ground, green and healthy, plants that are spaced well, pruned when needed and watered regularly.

Beyond that 10 feet, to the 30-foot mark, shrubs, grass and trees—preferably deciduous because they have higher moisture content—can be added. Ladder fuels—plants that allow fire to spread from grass to tree tops—should be removed. They can be situated in an island planting instead; the use of a brick or stone border around the area is advised to slow the spread of fire.

Zone 2 is the area 30 to 100 feet from the structure where more plants, taller trees and shrubs, can be used, but the same Firewise principles such as pruning, clearing and watering apply. In addition, firewood or small brush piles should be moved here or farther away if possible.

Beyond Zone 2, even more latitude is allowed in the choice of plants, but the same Firewise guidelines are stressed.

After assessing my own landscape, I realize I have done some things right and many things wrong. I now know I have some Firewise plants such as a Saucer magnolia, Amur maples, as well as a stretch of lawn and an assortment of succulents and bulbs, drought tolerant perennials and natives.

I also have fuel breaks: porches and pathways, gravel and stones interspersed in the landscape. I know to irrigate, to keep shrubs and trees trimmed and thinned, and to clean debris from beneath trees and shrubs and out of gutters. I try to choose herbaceous, non-woody plants, bulbs and hardwood trees for future plantings.

But the truth is, I have many things that are not Firewise; wrong plants in the wrong places and they are just going to have to stay there.

This includes Southern magnolias that are growing ever bigger and bigger, closer and closer to my house. And a nearby blue Atlas cedar tucked so decoratively—and dangerously—in a corner.

How do I know these plants are not Firewise? Because of the Forestry Services’ Fire Plant Selector at—a trove of information including extensive lists of Firewise plants, those that are not and those that are in-between.

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I also learned that my ornamental grasses—muhly, maiden, fountain—are not Firewise either, but at least they are more than 30 feet from my house. I also have many “at risk” plants, those “in-betweeners,” such as American beautyberry, Burford hollies, Chinquapin oak, elderberry and weeping yaupon, some of them too close for comfort.

I also discovered my spacing is lacking, which doesn’t exactly conform to what could be the Firewise mantra of “lean, clean and green.” I like the look of a cottage garden, the cheerful clutter of it all: flowers hugging herbs, grasses and small shrubs spilling beyond their borders, vines clamoring up trellises. But much of this can be considered “ladder fuel” as they could carry fire from grass to treetop to rooftop, depending on placement.

But as we know so well, all plants will burn if the conditions are right. There is only so much that can be done if you want a landscape that is more than gravel. As the Forestry service kindly acknowledged about eastern red cedars in our landscape, the likelihood of fire is minimal and the enjoyment is worthwhile, I tell myself that advice applies to the rest of my landscape as well. I will do what I can to make my landscape more Firewise in the future. And enjoy it in the meantime. After all, it could get wiped out by a tornado instead.