Worries about fire risks and frustration with her HOA’s landscaping caused an HOA resident to seek advice from a law columnist at the Los Angeles Times in March 2017. Despite small fires there related to landscaping, highly flammable trees remained on site, such as Arborvitae, Eucalyptus, and Fan Palms. Furthermore, dead Arborvitae were still standing in the property’s windbreak.
The expert answered that when put on notice of dangers, an HOA has a legal duty “to correct the problem and maintain the association’s property through a process known as firescaping.” Firescaping—also called ‘fire-wise’ landscaping—is part of the process of creating defensible space. We’ll define those terms in a bit and talk about ways HOAs can become better prepared for surviving wildfires. But first it helps to consider fire risk in California.
We’re number 1. The Insurance Information Institute reports that based on the number of households at high or extreme risk from wildfires (2,044,800), California in 2017 topped the list of states prone to wildfire. The household figure came from the 2010 census.
Also, the Institute notes that last year, California had 71,499 wildfires. It adds that as of July 8, 2018, and at 31,017 wildfires so far, we aren’t far behind the mid-year figure for 2017.
Furthermore, northern California’s Tubbs Fire of autumn 2017, which wiped out an entire subdivision in the city of Santa Rosa, and southern California’s Thomas Fire two months later—the largest wildfire in state history—prove that what Hollywood once would have dreamt up as a big budget apocalypse is now a real-life concern.
But there is good news for HOAs and residents. With the aid of organizations such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), local fire departments, and a knowledgeable landscape planning and design company, HOA boards and residents can work together to minimize wildfire danger through development of defensible space including firescaping.
With effective support, HOA boards can help their communities become educated about fire prevention and prioritize landscaping decisions based not only on controlling costs but also keeping residents safe.
What Are Defensible Space and Firescaping?
Creating defensible space is the process of maintaining and modifying homes, communities and their landscaping to avert fire loss. Firescaping involves careful choice, placement, and maintenance of plantings, mulch, and hardscape to limit fire development. It’s also aimed at improving accessibility around building perimeters and along alleys and roads so firefighters can do their job.
Defensible space is particularly crucial in communities that are next to or not far from open space. This connection between urban or suburban developments and nature is referred to as the wildland urban interface (WUI). Sometimes communities discover that neighborhoods seemingly far from the WUI are actually easily within reach of wildfires as in the case of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park subdivision, which lost about 1,300 homes to the Tubbs Fire.
Reporting in 2014 on advances in wildfire science, National Geographic noted research showing that one major element of wildfire spread is caused by embers from wildfires landing on rooftops and other structural elements of neighborhoods miles away. The magazine pointed out some “small steps” toward modifying and maintaining properties that can save communities. The tips include:
- Placing trash cans and dumpsters away from homes and keeping lids on the receptacles
- Regularly removing debris from roof gutters
- Moving dried brush, wood piles and wood construction materials away from buildings and flammable structural elements, including decks and fences and
- Placing fine metal mesh over openings—including attic vents—through which embers may otherwise enter homes
A standard defensible firescaping plan for a suburban home where there is a lot of surrounding green space needs to be adapted when applying it to the tighter lot lines often found in HOAs. The basic principles of such a plan can easily be adapted to communities with small yards but with more plentiful open space.
Immediately surrounding homes, these ideas include:
- Limiting vegetation around foundations
- Eliminating plants, if possible, that are known to be highly flammable
- Getting rid of dead plants, dry leaves, pine needles and weeds
- Removing vining plants that climb up house walls and wooden fences
- Trimming trees and shrubs to avoid branches from overhanging or touching structures
- Switching from wood and bark groundcover to rock mulch, such as decomposed granite
- Keeping organic mulches moist until replacement is affordable
Farther out in yards and open space, HOAs should:
- Prune trees to keep their canopies at least 10 feet apart and remove branches lower than six feet above ground
- Trim trees and shrubs to avoid laddering (fire climbing upward from lower to higher foliage) by maintaining a vertical distance of about five feet between them
- Maintain some distance between grass, shrubbery and trees to further decrease risk of laddering
- Replace trees and plants known to be highly flammable
- Add hardscape elements such as raised beds, berm walls and fences made of stone
Regarding plant replacement, keep in mind that none are fireproof. However, many burn far more slowly than others. Lists of drought-tolerant and fire-resistant plants are available from organizations such as the Diablo FireSafe Council and FIRESafe Marin. California garden centers that specialize in drought-tolerant plants may also have lists. Las Pilitas Nursery in San Luis Obispo County, which specializes in California native plants, did a study of leaf-burn times that is helpful in making good choices.
Take a Deep Breath
Change can be emotionally and financially difficult, but disasters such as wildfires are worse.
Before throwing up your hands and asking how you can accomplish all these measures at once, remember that decisions need to be prioritized and can be enacted gradually. HOA boards generally can’t afford massive change all at once, but they also can’t ignore fire safety.
Reach out to Serpico Landscaping for support about planning and implementing design changes, hardscape construction, plant purchases, irrigation management and maintenance plans. We can help you breathe easier.