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Firescaping: Right landscaping can help protect your home from wildfire

Right now, clean up needles and dead branches, then plant for future fire safety

Citrus trees are good choices for firescaping, as are other fruit trees such as apple and pear.

Citrus trees are good choices for firescaping, as are other fruit trees such as apple and pear. Kathy Morrison

If you have pine trees or other evergreens, you may have noticed: Dropped needles are everywhere. The driest year in Northern California history hit evergreens hard – and greatly increased fire danger.

On his seven-acre property in the Sierra foothills, Kevin Marini has seen firsthand the toll of our very dry 2022.

“Needle drop; that’s one thing that happened up here,” observed the longtime Placer County master gardener. “There’s a lot of dieback, dead branches (on the lower portion of trunks) and fire ladders. I think the drought during January and February really had an impact on mature trees.”

“Fire ladders” – dead branches along a tree’s trunk – can allow a wildfire to climb up the tree and burn its crown. That will kill the tree as well as allow the wildfire to jump onto other trees – or your roof.

“We’re also seeing the effect of those big December storms,” Marini added.

Following months of drought, December 2021 produced record Sierra snowfall. Donner Pass saw 202 inches of snow in that one month; several Sierra communities were buried by 15 feet.

Nicknamed “Snowmaggedon,” those December storms packed a wallop. A combination of the weight of heavy snow plus high winds damaged evergreens. Often, broken branches snagged on other branches and became suspended high above the ground. Limbs snapped but didn’t immediately fall. With rootballs weakened by drought, some big trees toppled over under the weight of snow. 

“All the trees got damaged around here, and there are still a lot of limbs dead in trees,” said Marini, who lives between Meadow Vista and Colfax. “A lot of my Ponderosa pines have three, four limbs broken but stuck up in the tree.”

Eventually, wind knocks those dead branches down, adding to the fire danger on the ground. It’s all fuel for wildfire. 

“All this dead material and trees are dropping more,” Marini said. “A stiff breeze and another one of those branches with dead pine needles falls down. Everyone in the foothills is really struggling with tree clean-up since December, and there’s still more dead material stuck in the trees. There’s so much to clean up; there are still areas of my property where trees were ripped out of the ground (that need to be removed).”

This brittle dryness intensifies fire danger, Marini added. “I live at the top of a hill; fire is always a concern with a huge slope beneath you (because fire spreads uphill). This year, there’s a lot more fuel. That can make for a really tough fire season.”

Marini, community education specialist for the UCCE Master Gardeners of Placer County, has become a firescaping specialist – using landscaping to help protect your home from wildfire. He’s recorded a podcast on the topic with Green Acres Nursery & Supply  and practices his own advice.

-- The biggest thing: Create defensible space around your home. 

In wilderness and high-fire areas, CalFire recommends a 100-foot buffer around structures with grasses mowed and potential fuel minimized. The first 5 to 10 feet should be “ember resistant” – nothing that can burn. Use hardscape or gravel, not plants, next to your home.  No trees or shrubs should overhang roofs or come in contact with decks and buildings. 

Within 30 feet of structures, landscaping should be “lean and green”; well maintained and healthy plants spaced far apart. Trees and shrubs should be at least 10 feet apart – no touching branches  – to help keep flames from jumping from branch to branch. No hedges.

-- Before winter, the priority is clean-up. All those fallen pine needles can create a thick thatch; embers can actually burn and spread fire below the thatch, then suddenly erupt into flame. Three inches of pine needles is OK, says CalFire. Otherwise, get out the rake. Remove fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones and small branches. 

Also clean up and remove fallen branches, downed trees and other large flammable debris.

-- Cut back trees. Remove any limbs that extend near roofs and structures. Eliminate any dead branches or fire ladders.

-- Take care of your trees and keep them healthy. Deep-water, if possible (especially trees near structures). Mulch, mulch, mulch; use green wood chips that still contain some moisture.

-- Watch for signs of drought stress such as dieback or a tree that appears to be leaning.

“When trees totally come out of the ground, you can see how the rootball was compromised,” Marini said. “In drought, the rootball shrinks and the tree becomes unstable.”

Trees along roads or other pavement tend to be at greater risk because their roots are already stressed by constant compaction. 

-- Defensible space is a community effort; your home may still be at risk if your neighbor’s property is a tinderbox. Work with your neighbors to tackle trouble spots.

This season, Marini noted a growing awareness of fire danger and defensible space. “On the positive side, I’ve seen more action since December than I ever have before. People are taking action to reduce fuel.” 

-- October is a great month to transplant perennials, shrubs and trees. Transition your landscape to a plant palette that’s less likely to catch fire.

Some recommended plants: Phlox, yarrow, columbine, carex, coreopsis, delphinium, daylily, hosta, lavender, lupine, salvia, butterfly bush, cotoneaster, mahonia, nandina, spiraea and lilac. Succulents also are good. Recommended trees include: Maple, birch, redbud, dogwood, crabapple, oak and citrus. It is important to note that even fire-resistant plants will burn under the right circumstances, such as poor maintenance. 

For more information on defensible space, see these CalFire recommendations: https://www.fire.ca.gov/dspace/.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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