Trial by Fire

These landscaping tips will keep your home safe long before the first signs of wildfire.

October 13, 2011

The moment she saw a cloud of black smoke thousands of feet high east of her San Diego County home, Peggy Petitmermet phoned her husband, Robert, at work, then arranged for their daughter, Giverny, to go home with a friend after school. "I went through the house, gathering things in case we had to evacuate," Peggy recalls. She then attempted to hose the garden. "But the Santa Ana wind was so strong, it blew the water back in my face." By midafternoon, the air had turned thick, orange, and acrid, and swirled with ash. The couple watched in horror as flames engulfed a hillside less than a mile away.

"Fire had blocked the main road east of us," she says, "so we escaped on a dirt road to the south." Safe at the home of friends, the family watched their community burn on the evening news. Footage showed horses rearing as owners tried to save them, and rafters ablaze against a smoke-dark sky. By the time the fire was under control, 8,600 acres and 120 homes had burned. It was a scene of almosttotal destruction.That was the fall of 1996; wildfire again threatened the house in 2003 and 2007. "The first time,we weren't ready," Peggy says. "What protected us was 5 acres that had been cleared to the north." A neighbor was not as fortunate. "He went back to get family photos and tried to outrun the fire. It overtook him..." She falls silent, remembering how he died. Since then, thanks to Peggy's efforts and those of her neighbors, their 300-home community—known as Elfin Forest, because of the dwarf oaks that populate its steep hills and deep canyons—is becoming a model for its fire-wise gardens, planning, and preparation.


Fuel for Fire

Brush fires have always been a fall phenomenon in Southern California, sometimes burning hundreds of square miles of wilderness. The natural result of lightning storms, these fires are part of the growth cycle of native plants; wild lilac, sumac, creosote bush, and other chaparral species benefit from fire's intense pruning and cleansing. Following winter rains, green growth resurges, and in spring, wildflower seeds scarified by the fire turn hillsides into tapestries of colorful, ephemeral blooms.

During the past decade, as more and more of the region's population spread into remote areas, this natural burn cycle became a billion-dollar menace. Wildfires make headlines when homes and lives are threatened, which happens more and more as subdivisions stretch out into the countryside. Add to the equation chaparral that is drier than normal as a result of ongoing drought, and all it takes is a carelessly (or deliberately) tossed match for environmental and human disaster to ensue.

Reducing Risk

The Petitmermets have lived on 6 acres in Elfin Forest for 29 years. They knew from the beginning that wildfire was a concern, so they designed their home and landscape with fire safety in mind. Gravel pathways and concrete patios surround their home, providing valuable outdoor living space and an essential firebreak. The house itself has no overhanging eaves or decks that might trap burning embers. "I don't feel vulnerable about fire along the ground—it's flying embers that are hazardous," Peggy says. "The wind during a wildfire is so strong, embers are blown in through pet doors."

Views from the house are to the south and west, across a chaparral canyon. Their 1 1/2-acre garden follows the property's sloping terrain and flows around the house, terraces, and sitting areas. By design, the garden complements the adjacent undeveloped land. Thickets of pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli) form attractive borders, agaves punctuate the landscape like exclamation points, and native hummingbirds dart through beds planted with echeverias, aloes, and jade plant (Crassula ovata).

The thoughtful selection of plants growing within the garden's borders serves both as a buffer zone between the canyon and the Petitmermet home and as an outlet for Peggy's creativity. The former junior high art teacher has reactive airway disease and hyper chemical sensitivity. Going anywhere is problematic, so she spends much of her time in the garden, which is organic by necessity. Though no longer able to paint, Peggy's artistic stamp is visible. "I can still create," she says. "My palette consists of foliage, flowers, shapes, color complements, sight lines, and vantage points."

Protective Plantings

The Petitmermets' carefully curated collection of plants and intuitive garden design demonstrate that fire-resistant landscapes need not be bleak or barren. Due to Southern California's ongoing drought, the focus is on water-wise plants that add color, texture, and drama to the rocky, sloped garden. Peggy avoids planting anything woody with leaves that dry out. Before a new plant goes into the ground, she tests its flammability: "I cut off a piece and hold a barbecue lighter to it."

Many California natives, including ceanothus and manzanita, fit her drought-tolerant criteria, but they can also be dry, oily, and extremely flammable. These plants, as well as a few highly combustible nonnatives like geraniums and bougainvillea, do find their way into select spots in her garden. "I surround them with other plants that won't burn," she explains. "Or I isolate them in islands and keep them well watered."

In Elfin Forest's near-perfect climate, frost and desert heat are not concerns, so Peggy grows an abundance of succulents—plump, moisture-filled plants that require little water and are fire-retardant. "Succulents are so beautiful," she says, pointing to her statuesque agaves and euphorbias, and the aloes that bloom bright orange in midwinter. The plants, which do not require humus-rich soil, thrive in the garden's decomposed granite, which also provides the excellent drainage they need.

Form and Function

The property's rocky terrain and soil makes it difficult to plant anything much larger than a cutting, but this is an asset for fire prevention. The native rocks, as well as pathways made with incombustible stone and gravel, provide fuel breaks—areas without flammable plant material. In addition to offering fire protection, the garden's granite boulders make dramatic focal points.

"They have a lot of blue-gray, rust, and copper in them," says Peggy. She picks plants with colors that contrast and harmonize with the rocks—such as Opuntia robusta, a prickly pear cactus with blue-green leaves. "It has spines, so I don't plant it where anyone can run into them."

A near-spineless variety of Opuntia ficus-indica borders much of the property. The cactus needs almost no irrigation, serves as a security barrier, discourages deer, and—with its thick, juicy pads—provides an excellent firewall.

Raising Awareness

Using the lessons learned in her own garden, Peggy now focuses on helping to refurbish the 10-year-old Elfin Forest Fire Safe Garden, located on a third of an acre adjacent to the community's fire station. Built with many volunteer hours from Elfin Forest neighbors, the award-winning garden showcases plants that are slow to transmit flames and illustrates how the landscape surrounding a structure can be colorful yet minimize wildfire risk.

Visitors to the garden have an opportunity to observe real-life examples of key fire-wise gardening principles, including how far to space trees from structures, ways to create attractive fuel breaks, and fire-resistant planting combinations that work well in average suburban yards.

Besides giving time to the demonstration garden, Peggy participates in the Elfin Forest garden tour, which allows the public to see examples of private fire-wise gardens so they can learn how to protect their homes from the threat of wildfire.

While many of the properties in Elfin Forest are now landscaped with fire safety in mind, Peggy stresses that fire-wise planning and preparation comes down to people. As the head of the community's block captains, her job is to mobilize neighbors when fire threatens.

"The fire department calls me, I phone my block captains, and they contact the residents. Everyone in Elfin Forest can be alerted in 20 minutes," she says. "I also ask people to clear roadways so firemen can get in and the rest of us can get out. Whatever you do affects your neighbors. If everyone in the community acts responsibly, then the community is safe."

Check out our favorite fire-resistant plants, and learn more about to create your very own fire-wise landscape.

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