Slow down a runaway fire by firescaping a defensible space around your home with three zones of firewise plants.
Author: Kay Montgomery
Firescaping. The steeper the slope, the larger the defensible space needs to be, especially if the garden is lower than the house. (Pic: Alan Dawson)
Midsummer is fire season in the Western Cape. In landscapes situated near mountain fynbos or near nature reserves, it is a good time to assess whether your landscape would protect you – or increase your danger – if your home lies in the path of an oncoming wildfire.
Firescaping – or landscaping according to firewise principles – has been developed by Firewise communities across the world. South Africa’s local organisation (www.firewisesa.org.za) is working with garden centres on this project. Behind the firewise community initiative is the government’s Working on Fire programme which sets out to manage South Africa’s wildfires (approximately 2000 a year) by employing 1700 firefighters in one of the country’s most progressive job creation programmes.
Safeguarding your property against wildfires can potentially make the difference between whether your house is saved or consumed in a fire. Certain properties are more vulnerable to fire than others.
Local experience, together with case studies of wildfires in California and Australia have shown that homes situated alongside fynbos reserves or beside dense stands of woody invasive alien vegetation are at huge risk. Houses situated at the top of a slope, as well as properties directly exposed to prevailing winds or in a valley through which wind is channelled are also at risk.
The num num (Carissa macrocarpa) is a superb shrub that has leathery fire resistant leaves. (Pic: Andrea Durrheim )
Firescape in zones
How do you develop a firewise landscape? Identify and remove flammable (usually invasive alien) plants which can explode into ladders of fireballs that destroy your home. Research the list of plants that are known to be relatively fire-resistant. And then finally, divide the garden into three zones of defensible space that can be firescaped with firewise plants.
Here are descriptions of the three firewise zones:
This is a buffer zone area on the boundary of your garden which should be planted up with low growing, fleshy-leaved ground covers, hedging plants and isolated forest trees or large succulent aloes that are fire-resistant and resprout when damaged by fire. Never use flammable fencing materials.
Within the garden, design ‘island beds’ surrounded by lawn, paving or gravel. Choose fire-resistant trees and shrubs, but make sure that they do not touch each other or create a ladder effect that can deliver a fire to your home. Interplant the islands with low growing ground covers.
Create a 3m wide zone of hard landscaping, lawn or low growing fire-resistant plantings around the house. This patio zone is a great place for shade loving, flowering plants.
Firewise. All buchus (Agathosma spp.) are low growing firewise shrubs that are ideal for borders near a house. (Pic: Andrea Durrheim)
Firewise. The shade loving wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubaline) has glossy green fire resistant leaves and clusters of bright orange tubular flowers which are loved by sunbirds. (Pic: Ernst van Jaarsveldt)
If you are planning to firewise your garden this summer, consider these practical tips:
- Remove all illegal invasive alien plants as many of them are highly flammable, for example, Port Jackson, black wattles, pampas grass, giant reed and Spanish broom.
- Conifers, deodars and pines will light-up like a Christmas tree in the event of a wildfire. Known internationally to be the least fire-resistant plants in a garden, you need to assess whether they pose a danger. Remove them if necessary.
- Trees are best placed on the outer boundaries of large gardens, complexes and estates.
- Allow plenty of space between plants that are near your home. Avoid planting dense shrubberies. Instead, create irregular, sparsely planted small islands that are at least 3-5m apart. By spreading plantings out in this manner they cannot form a continuous canopy that provides a leap-frog path for fire to your front door.
- Avoid timber decking, timber fencing, wooden pergolas and archways.
- Install non-flammable hard landscaping such as flagstone walks, brick patios, stone retaining walls, gravel and inorganic mulches.
- Finally, appreciate that the defensible space around your home differs according to the terrain. On level ground the defensible space is 10m in all directions from your house. If your house and garden is on a slope, the defensible area needs to be larger – at least 30m. And the steeper the slope, the larger the defensible space needs to be — 60m or more — especially if the garden is lower than the house. For more information go to www.firewisesa.org.za
Source: Saturday Argus, Independent Newspapers, 4 December, 2010.