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Fire Wise landscaping

 
Posts: 14
Location: Tomales, CA
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Our 250 acre headquarters of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation is very near the huge northern California fires. I've been studying the FireWise Marin materials on protecting your structures from wild fires. They advocate keeping a 10-15' perimeter around each building that has no flammable, or at least no easily flammable, material. They suggest using a list of acceptable plants for this zone that meet certain criteria. We have 19 buildings with landscaping around most of them, and limited labor.

I've loved following the permies method of keeping a blanket of leaves and cut and drop plant materials around landscaping plants, it is easy and very efficient, and gives the plants the nutrients they need. But it is highly flammable and a major no-no for the perimeter near a building.

We need your suggestions for managing this near-to-structures landscaping zone. Wood chips are out. The materials Firewise suggests are: using rocks around the building,  mulching with compost or other non-flammable material,  or growing very low ground covers. Compost would be an expensive, time-consuming outside input for us; ground covers require tedious weeding; they are much higher maintenance than mulch, too high. I think a perimeter of rocks would be too ugly and again, a very expensive outside input.

Our acre food garden is far enough from structures that, fortunately, we can use all the chips and mulch we want there. All the compost we currently creates goes to the food garden.

Questions: How to manage the 15' area around buildings in a permies way?

How can I dispose of all the plant material and brush we will have to clear out? Most of it will be too coarse to put in the garden compost. What about burying it? If I bury it in an unused area of the food garden, would that become a good food growing area for the future? Or, how to compost it thoroughly enough so it woudn't be flammable and we could put it around the buildings?

If we decide to remove 20-50 huge old eucalyptus and cypress trees, would we be able to sell them to someone, at least for the cost of cutting and cleanup? How do I find such a buyer?

As you can see, we can use your help.

Thanks, Gale

 
gardener
Posts: 6161
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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First thing I need to say, as a former smoke jumper in Northern California, 15 feet is an easy jump for a wind driven wild fire.

If you really want to be able to have the buildings survive a wild fire, you want a minimum of 50 feet between what can burn and any building. Embers can travel very large distances before they die.
The best ground covers are obviously non flammable items such as gravel or sand but that doesn't look so nice, it does however keep moisture where we want it.

Also obvious is no Conifers of any kind, the oils in them makes them matches in a fire event.

Grass is a fair ground cover, especially if you nurture the soil so the roots penetrate deep, some of the desert cacti like yucca work pretty good as a fire break planting, as do most succulents.

Unfortunately, most of the "desirable" plants are not very fire resistant, especially in dry conditions and during wind blown wild fire events.
The list does work and if you do groupings they can even make acceptable looking landscaping.

 
gardener
Posts: 457
Location: Sierra Nevadas, CA 6400'
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The USFS keeps a good site describing some of the core principles of defensible space http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Defensible-Space/ — one thing to note is that this is defensible space, not fireproof landscaping. It means that your structure has a higher chance of surviving with the aid of human defense. The idea is less about specific plant types and more about avoiding fire "ladders" — a combination of horizontal proximity, vertical distance, and fuel timelags (how long it takes for a certain type of fuel to dry out and combust in a fire).

I would recommend contacting a registered forester and have him come do a site visit. While the general rules of "no flammable materials" is good advice for the public, the specifics of how fires work are extremely contextual. A large, irrigated area of wood chips with no woody plants is a very different scenario from a non-irrigated wood chip mulched area of densely planted woody brush and dwarf trees. The general idea is that you want the shortest fuels to burn out before the taller fuels can catch fire. You can usually accomplish a large amount of fire insurance by maintaining low grass heights, removing woody brush 100' from buildings, and cutting lower limbs off trees.
min_vert_clear.png
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Fire ladder effect
 
pollinator
Posts: 1518
Location: northern California
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I have made three tall raised beds in my yard, one of which is dug out completely every year.  Into the bottom of this not only goes my year's worth of humanure compost, but any woody brush that has accumulated, plus cardboard.  Since we heat and grill with wood, quite a lot of stuff gets broken up and boxed for this purpose.  By the time I come back to that bed three years later the brush has completely composted down in there.  So I suspect any kind of trenching or burial would do to dispose of brush beneficially.  Also you could pile it into an open pit and deliberately burn it in the non-fire season....there are ways to design the pit, or a barrel, which will produce very useful biochar.   An ad posted on Craiglist or something like that might be a good way to get the trees removed, perhaps for free or even at profit to you...cypress especially is valuable stuff.  
 
Posts: 96
Location: Mediterranean-Temperate transition zone
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Gale Zimmerman wrote:They advocate keeping a 10-15' perimeter around each building that has no flammable, or at least no easily flammable, material. ... We need your suggestions for managing this near-to-structures landscaping zone. ... If we decide to remove 20-50 huge old eucalyptus and cypress trees


Removing all Eucalyptus spp. from your property is advisable — they turn into fuel-air bombs during bushfire conditions.

Embers will fly kilometres, not just metres, and ember attack is the primary reason most houses are lost.

The role of buffers is to a) eliminate direct flame contact with walls, and b) reduce radiant heat levels.  A 3-5m buffer will address the former, but is wholly inadequate for addressing the latter.  We have a 20m buffer around our place.  If your buffer isn't big enough, radiant heat will thermally stress and crack your windows, which will then fail and admit embers into the building.  Radiant heat will also go through windows and set internal furnishings on fire.  Even if radiant heat doesn't set anything inside on fire, it will cause petroleum-based products to start smoking and turn the inside of your house into a toxic gas chamber.  This is, of course, not what you want if you need to retreat there when the flame front rolls over your property.

As far as landscaping goes, I'll go out on a limb and make a slightly odd suggestion:  Since your property is so large, consider cordoning off a 20m buffer around all of your buildings, connecting it all to a goose pen, and seeding it with a mix of grasses that meet the dietary requirements of the birds.

The geese will mow the grass for you, you won't need to spend virtually anything on feed, weeds will be controlled, the land will be fertilised, root systems will penetrate deeper into the soil and help break up any clay, you'll have an excuse to inject water into the area which will find its way into the soil via goose excrement, if you have female geese you'll end up with eggs for breakfast, ultimately you'll have meat for dinner, and short, green grass is an excellent buffer against bushfires.

You can start off relatively cheaply with portable electric netting, see how it goes, and then migrate to more permanent fencing if it works out for you.

(Of course, geese are only one possibility.  Certain ducks are also good lawn mowers.  Muscovies are one breed that are very, very quiet (if noise is a concern).  Alpacas would also work.  If you are prepared to lay down some mesh and let the grass grow through, you could even do rabbits (and other critters that normally dig/burrow).  Lots of options.)
 
master pollinator
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My home is very resistant to wildfire for a few reasons I believe...

My home is surrounding by open land where much of it is grazed by sheep. This means the grass can be grazed down very close to the ground near the house pasture if need be.

I also have equipment: tractors, bulldozers and skidders that can be employed to bust sod if I have too. I realize not everyone has that option, but even a tractor towing a disc harrow access open land in advance of a fire would be a huge improvement. Having the machines always fueled up helps as they can be employed without having to fetch fuel and then operate all day on that full tank.

Large volumes of water stored also helps. A spring fed pond is ideal.

 
Posts: 41
Location: Western Oregon (Willamette Valley), 8a/8b
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Rock gardens and rain gardens and the like can be ideal around structures. Not only does it help keep fire at bay but done correctly, it can help direct water where you want it and away from your building foundations, etc. And they can look really lovely too.



 
Posts: 197
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Rebecca, I love your rock garden idea. Two birds with one stone. Very nice looking and fuctionable and free. Plenty of handsome looking rocks where I'll be heading in the spring.  Larry
 
Posts: 18
Location: Zone 6, High Desert
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I'm working on my defensible space, too. I'm planting a lot of yarrow, which self-waters by harvesting moisture from the air the same way the giant redwoods do, with feathery-looking leaves. I don't get nearly as much fog or precipitation as you do in Marin, but my yarrow patch is green and spreading on ~12" of precipitation a year and no irrigation. Maybe add a good dose of yarrow to the goose plan above (if yarrow and geese are compatible), and make a mowable meadow?

 
Posts: 92
Location: Fairplay, Northern California
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Gale, since you live in California, you might profit from a search of the website of Las Pilitas Nursery, which deals exclusively in Calif. native plants.  Their take on fire protection is, if you are going to have plants near your house, make them natives.  In general, natives do not burn in the way domestics do.  Sure, there are some that you should avoid, but on the whole, native grasses, shrubs, and ground covers are better for the areas near buildings. It's hard for me to give details so I encourage you to check out their site.  They address the problem of fire specifically.  
 
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