August 15, 2014, Release for Tallahassee Democrat
By Stan Rosenthal
With the exception of the dead of winter, there are usually some fires burning somewhere in the U.S.A. In North Florida, it tends to be in late winter through early summer that we can have wildfires. Fortunately, in our area, many of our landowners and government agencies do a good job of prescribed burning during these times to avoid devastating wildfires. Just the same, that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen here. A small fire of a couple of acres can burn your house down if you live adjacent to wooded or brushy areas just as a large multi-thousand-acre wildfire can.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your property? First, if you can keep the “wild” areas around you managed, you can reduce the likelihood of an out of control fire spreading to your house. Second, don’t neglect the areas immediately around your home that could “carry” a fire to your house from a more wild area. This area immediately around your home we call “defensible space” When you have no defensible space a wildfires that reaches your property can keep right on going, consuming trees, landscaping and houses.
Creating a fire-resistant landscape means balancing sometimes conflicting needs for shade, water, aesthetics, wildlife habitat and defensible space. Controlled burns can reduce the threat of widespread wildfire but maintaining the defensible space around your home provides the final and most certain barrier.
Fires need fuel to burn. Dead branches and needles burn quickly, as well as some highly flammable trees and shrubs. By creating and maintaining open space around your home, you can reduce the chance that the fire will be close enough to catch your home on fire. A 50-foot safety zone around your home is the most crucial defensible space. Within this zone, here are some things you should consider:
- Use patios, walkways, driveways, stone walls, and pools as fuel breaks.
- Thin out existing trees to create at least 15 feet of open space between the crowns and trim the lower branches up to at least 15 feet above the ground.
- Within your 50-foot safety zone, create an open space of 20 feet around your house and clear trees and large shrubs. Plant grass, flowers, and small shrubs in this space and keep them green during the fire season.
- Create shrub islands of fire resistant landscape plants at least 10 feet apart. Prune shrubs to keep the foliage off the ground and reduce densities. Avoid conical shrubs that could direct fire upward. Fire resistant plants are those that are succulent and do not have flammable foliage. They would include many annual and perennial flowers and most broadleaf deciduous shrubs and trees.
- Remove small pine trees that are under larger trees or are clumped together, and remove all ladder fuel (limbs, vines, and shrubs that could channel fire from the ground to the tree canopy or your roof).
- Irrigate through the dry season to keep groundcover green.
- Clear at least 10 feet around woodpiles.
- Remove dead and dying branches.
- Remove saw palmetto, juniper, wax myrtle and small pines that are close to buildings. They burn easily and can throw sparks when they burn.
Removing all the trees around a home, unfortunately, would eliminate shade and increase the temperature of your yard and house. Older trees are less likely to burn in a ground fire, and dropped oak leaves can even prevent a fire from spreading. Consider keeping tall pines or planting oak or other broadleaf trees within the defensible space. Beyond this 50-foot safety zone, fuel loads should also be reduced to a distance at least 150 feet from your home. The goal is to slow the fire and keep it on the ground. To achieve this goal, it will be important to replace the flammable species with fire-resistant, drought-resistant plants and water your groundcover enough to keep it green and growing through the fire season, if possible.
If you can take a look around your house and see the need for some of these ideas, please don’t wait until a wildfire is headed towards your house to enact these tasks.
Stan Rosenthal is an Extension Agent with Leon County/University of Florida IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov
Summer prescribe burning on Leon County Parks and Recreation property. Photo by Stan Rosenthal.