“Firewise” Your Landscape

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Western NC has been in the national news about wildfires. There have been two recent wildfires in Caldwell County. The wildfires have caused people to be evacuated from their homes. The smoke has been evident across the entire region. Everyone has been affected, at least somewhat, by the recent wildfires which have been exacerbated by the dry weather.

The NC Forest Service and other emergency agencies deserve a huge show of appreciation for their tireless efforts. The rains this week provide some long term relief, but there are things homeowners themselves can do to reduce the risk wildfire damage.

If your home is in the woods, then it is at risk to a wildfire. However, there are firewise landscaping practices that reduce the risk of damage from a wildfire. Firewise landscaping involves creating “survivable space” around your home to slow or stop a wildfire. This does not doesn’t mean you cannot have trees in your yard. Nor does survivable space mean that your landscape will be bare or that it won’t attract wildlife. Instead, firewise concepts allow you to reduce the risk of fire damage but still have a pleasing landscape.

All vegetation is potential fuel for a fire. There are no “fireproof” plants. But the type, amount, and placement of vegetation dramatically affects fire behavior. In fact, plant choice, spacing, and maintenance are critical to firewise landscaping.

Survivable space is the area surrounding your home and outbuildings. The recommended distance for survivable space varies based on the kinds of vegetation and the steepness of the terrain. For homes on slopes less than 20 percent, a minimum of 30 feet is recommended for survivable space. Steeper sites require a larger survivable space.

Plant selection is also important. Plants have a flammability rating. Select plants with a low flammability rating within the survivable space. Plants that have a low flammability resistant have specific characteristics: they grow without accumulating large amounts of combustible dead branches, needles, or leaves such as flowering dogwoods. Low flammability plants have open, loose branches with a low volume of total vegetation such as the hearts-a-burstin shrub.

Hearts a bustin seed pod

Plants such as hearts-a-bustin (Euonymus americanus) have a reduced flammability potential and are a good choice “survivable space” around homes that are at risk for wildfires. (Photo Credit: Tom Harville)

These plants also have a low sap or resin content. Not surprising, high moisture content plants such as jewelweed are less susceptible to fire. In addition, plants that grow close to the ground such as bird-foot violet as well as plants that resprout after a fire such as smooth sumac are good plant characteristics for the survivable space.

Having a variety of these types of plants will be aesthetically pleasing, attract wildlife, and help reduce the threat of fire to your home. Do not plant vines or ornamental grasses within the survivable space. Vines and ornamental grasses, such as switchgrass, are extremely flammable plants when dry and can cause a wildfire to spread rapidly. This is especially so if dead growth has not been removed.

Do not forget landscape maintenance. A landscape is a dynamic system that is constantly changing. Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that have a low flammability rating and low fuel volumes can lose these characteristics over time if they are not maintained properly. Conducting seasonal maintenance such as pruning, will help you to maintain the plants’ firewise properties.

To maintain a firewise landscape keep these tips in mind: remove dried foliage from annual and perennial plants, rake up and dispose of plant litter, mow turfgrass to a low height within the survivable space, remove all dead branches from trees to a height of 10 feet, remove vegetation touching the house, and don’t prune during the nesting season (April 15 through September 15).

More than 41 percent of North Carolina’s homes are located within the wildland-urban interface. Using firewise landscaping strategies, homeowners can create landscapes that are pleasing and have a reduced potential for damage from a wildfire.

The information used in the publication was developed through collaboration between the NC Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and N.C. Cooperative Extension. Firewise is an educational effort to make homes and communities safer from wildfires. The Coves At Round Mountain is one of 25 Firewise communities in North Carolina. Nation wide there are 1,481 Firewise communities in the United States. For information about Firewise Communities visit (firewise.org).

Information in this article was based on the “E05-44596 Firewise Landscaping in North Carolina” by Robert Bardon, Forestry Extension Specialist, NC State University and Kelley Van Druten, Wildland-Urban Interface Specialist, US Fish and Wildlife Service. For a copy of this publication contact the Caldwell Extension Center at 828-757-1290 or get it online at caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu