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FireSafe Council Urges Gardening Revisions

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The Highway l08 FireSafe Council meets monthly and the public is always invited.

I went to their meeting a couple of weeks ago (January 4th) and had a real eye-opening experience. The Council wants our homes and neighborhoods to be safe from fire. Their literature makes a compelling case, and they suggest ways we can protect our homes and neighborhoods. Were you here during the Stanislaus Complex fire in l987? All of the communities from Long Barn to Tuolumne City were threatened. Surely you haven´t forgotten the gut-wrenching fear, the smoke-scented air, the steady rain of fine ash and the incredible relief when the danger had passed.

Reading from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) illustrated brochure titledWhy 100 Feet?” we learn that one of the ways we can protect our homes is to provide two zones of defensible space—one at a 30 foot perimeter from the home and another at 100 feet. The 30 foot zone should belean, clean and green.” Remove all flammable vegetation and any dead or dying plants within 30 feet of each building or structure. You can keep single trees or other vegetation that is trimmed of all dead and dying foliage and is well pruned and maintained.

In the remaining 70 feet, or to the property line, surface litter—such as fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones, pods, small branches—should not be allowed to accumulate to a depth greater than three (3) inches. This further reduces the fuel load. Master Gardeners have urged using this material as mulch—and a little is OK. Two to three inches will help retain moisture, suppress weeds and not contribute substantially to a build-up of fuel. If you are concerned about the flammability of surface litter, one solution is to rake, chop and compost it. Partially or completely decomposed compost is much less flammable and can be spread over the surface as mulch.

What we are striving for is balance…between no growth at all and what is reasonable landscaping around our homes, well maintained and trimmed. Thinkopen, park-like setting.”

So, there are some changes ahead for my garden! Even though I have used natives and drought tolerant plants, have no lawn, keep my watering to an absolute minimum, rarely use pesticides and chemicals …I have made a serious error. Based on past gardening experience while living in the Bay Area, in Cincinnati where I grew up and on the East coast in up-state New York where we lived for five years, I designed my garden using traditional foundation planting—but made the wrong selection of plants.

Thinking I was doing the right thing I used manzanitas near the house. Wrong! We want species that carry moisture in their leaves, not the flammable resins in manzanita. Gardening habits developed over many years are hard to break, but the time has come. Where fire is an ever present danger during our long hot summers, the authorities saynot if, but when!”

I will soon be severely trimming the Howard McMinn manzanita that makes such a handsome informal hedge in front of my house. The rock rose that envelopes one end of my home will be trimmed back and away from the foundation. I have included a few low growing junipers in the assortment of greens and textures across the back of my house, and they too are subject to removal. It´s traumatic and I don´t like taking these draconian steps, but it´s the right thing to do.

If you are just now designing your landscaping you can be ahead of the game. Avoid the errors I (and many others) have made. If your landscaping is mature, consider how you canfree up” your home and let it stand clean and lean with minimal, green, fire resistant plantings around the foundation. Additional Fire Resistant Landscaping information can be found on This includes lists for fire resistant plants that thrive between the 1500 and 4000 foot levels.

More information can be obtained by clicking on You will note that all our fire departments and forest representatives are members, along with others interested in creating communities safe from the hazard of fire. Make it your business to learn how you can help. The next FireSafe Council meeting will be March 1st.

Joan Bergsund, Master Gardener, is reluctant but ready to cut out or trim back many of her foundation plants that have been happily growing to maturity over the last 13 years.