Community Posts ~ Allen Brown


How to make landscaping more fire safe

Posted on November 25, 2017 by Allen Brown

Like most Sonoma residents fortunate enough to survive the October fires with an intact home and an un-burnt landscape, I’m re-evaluating my landscape. Before the fires I assumed that I’m safer here in town. But now it is clear that with enough wind and fuel a fire storm can devastate everything in its path — sometimes in a matter of minutes. The fire storm doesn’t care whether it consumes a forest, a rural property, or a densely populated neighborhood.

I highly advise that all of us in fire prone Northern California read the following sources.

Cal Fire, as you would expect, has an excellent web site that includes a section that explains defensible space and fire safe landscaping, at Its graphics about vertical and horizontal spacing of trees and shrubs (including variations for different slopes) are very informative. It also offers a colorful, 48-page, fire safe plant list.

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has an excellent five-page article on Fire Resistant Landscaping by Suzanne Schettler. Schettler addresses the flammability of various plants, plant separation options such as planting islands, and also horticultural practices that keep your property more fire safe. Another source: Landscaping Artesia NM

Once you’ve read through Cal Fire and CNPS’s information you’ll be ready to re-evaluate your landscape layout and choose whether to prune, trim, add or remove certain plants. A great resource is FireSafe Marin’s website, with an extensive and somewhat interactive list of safe plants, at It has great photos, links to descriptions, and sorting by plant type (tree, shrub, ground-cover, etc.). It also has a table of fire-prone plants; take action to make your landscape safer.

Even if we have good horticultural practices, keep our gardens well maintained, and understand fire-safe landscaping it is easy to get too busy and overlook planting scenarios that could be safer. That is why if you are busy it is good to consult with a professional landscaper such as OC Landscaping Pros for some expert advice. Here’s what I needed to do on my property.

  • Reconsider ceanothus espalier shrubs against house. Even though ceanothus is considered a fire safe plant do I want any plant 7’ tall against the house? I chose to trim them back to 5’, thinned them out and will re-assess whether to remove them completely this winter.
  • Create a wider horizontal separation zone between Southern magnolia tree and fig tree canopies. Both trees are vigorous and within just a few years of growth their canopies nearly touch. To Do: Prune back canopy to create 10’ of air space as Cal Fire recommends.
  • Increase vertical and horizontal separation of screening shrubs from Magnolia tree. I have some Ceanothus shrubs that screen out my neighbor’s yard. They are next to my magnolia and one is entangled in the tree’s lower canopy. This can create a vertical fuel ladder. Cal Fire recommends that the height of shrubs under trees should be no more than 1/3 the distance to the bottom of the tree’s canopy. To Do: Prune both magnolia tree and Ceanothus shrub to remove fuel ladder
  • Move firewood stack to a safe distance from house. It is currently in a side yard 5’ from the house. To Do: Move firewood 30’ from the house in what Cal Fire calls Zone 2.
  • Trim small tree in side yard that over hangs roof. How did that happen? It’s in a side yard that doesn’t get much attention. To Do: Trim back branch overhanging roof to a side node.

I hope this information inspires you to re-evaluate your landscape now to create a safer home for you, and your family, and your community. My heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones and property in this disaster.


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