“Typically it’s not the trees and vegetation igniting homes, it’s the other way around.”
Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute and author of the book, “Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California”
Wildfires are a frequent, natural occurrence in California. The Santa Monica Mountains are considered a high-risk fire region, often threatened by wildfire which have resulted in property loss.* The Flora and Fire Program is a locally-focused resource for residents and communities located in the wildland urban interface to obtain information on what you can do to protect the integrity of the native ecosystem and reduce the risk of losing your home in a wildfire. As with earthquakes and floods, wildfires can’t be prevented but you can take steps to reduce the damage when they arrive.
*In the last five years, fires resulting in evacuations and destroyed property in the SMM were the May 2013 Springs Fire in Camarillo, the June 2016 Old Fire; and the December 2017 Skirball Fire.
The Nature of Wildfires
Many people believe chaparral burns often in order to regenerate itself. However, before humans arrived on the scene, the fire return interval for chaparral was on the order of 30 to 150+ years– not the rate we are witnessing in recent years. Wildfires have increased dramatically because of population growth. Homes and highly flammable landscapes that create traveling embers are causing wildfires to burn hotter, faster, and farther. These frequent wildfires are in now in excess of what the chaparral can tolerate, especially in Southern California. Areas in the Santa Monica Mountains are repeatedly burning far more often than natural regeneration can keep up with. Grasses, weeds and non-native species invade the space causing more frequent fires and taking all the resources from the land, leaving native plants with fewer areas to survive. Animals dependent upon native plants also suffer from invasive plant communities.
We can reduce the risk of wildfires by adapting lifestyles more compatible with our beautiful and unique Mediterranean natural environment. Better cohabitation practices are essential as population density grows away from urban areas into the mountains in order to protect lives and property.
Here are the ways you can protect your home and prevent the rapid spread of wildfires:
Planting native plants in your gardens and yards will help protect your home. Why?
— Native plants minimize the rapid spread of wildfires that ignite homes.
— Many native plants are actually designed to absorb hot embers vs. flammable plants not adapted to chaparral that will ignite.
— Wildfires naturally burn through the chaparral but non-native plants create a “fire trap”. putting lives and property nearby at risk
— Non-native plants don’t adapt to dry conditions, and burn hotter and longer.
There are other benefits to planting native! They require far less water and maintenance than traditional non-native gardens usually demand, conserving the state’s water supply. They don’t require pesticides or fertilizers either, keeping the garden healthy and safe for your family to enjoy!
Ready to garden with a native thumb? Here’s a list of native plants http://www.californiachaparral.com/images/The_64_Essential_List_2008_Final.pdf If you live on a hillside or would like assistance in plant selection, soils, etc., a professional landscaper can help you with a layout design suited to your location.
Embrace Natives, not Embers! Fire Defensive Landscaping:
Your yard can become your best defense in a wildfire! Many residents believe that clearing away as much vegetation as possible from their home is the best way to protect it. However, destructive embers fly for miles. Removing all vegetation creates a fire alley for embers to use your structure as the first strike zone.
How can you create a fire defense zone around your property?
–Select native plants and trees that help absorb embers and prevent fires from spreading.
–Create vertical space by not planting under trees to avoid creating a “fire ladder”.
–Create horizontal space by strategically spacing plants with advice by a fire specialist who can customize your yard to the specifics of your particular location.
–Defensible Space safety zone guidelines can be found on http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Defensible-Space/ regarding what to do in the first 30 feet of space around your home and up to 100 feet of space around your home as well as implementing general home maintenance measures to maximize your homes chance of survival.
Reducing the fuel load around your home is an important preventative measure in high-risk fire areas and enforced by local fire related agencies.
— Clear away flammable materials surrounding your home.
— Create easy access for firefighters around the perimeter of your home.
— Perform general home maintenance that not only saves your home but helps protect your entire community from the threat of wildfire destruction.
Community is Key
Fires are spreading hotter, faster, and farther because of the densely populated neighborhoods coming to the mountains. The most devastating fires are often caused by humans. What can communities located in high-risk areas do to help minimize the risk?
–Does your community have a fire safety council? Get involved to help educate all residents on the importance of proactive efforts to protect communities.
Local Fire Safety Councils:
Corral Canyon Fire Council http://corralcanyon.org
Horizon Hills Fire Safe Council firstname.lastname@example.org
Malibu Lake Fire Safe Council email@example.com
Monte Nido Fire Safe Council: Jo Powe at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mountains Restoration Trust at (818) 591-1701, Ext. 0.
Topanga Fire Safe website: https://sites.google.com/site/ntcfsc/
Westhills Fire Safe Council http://www.westhills91307.org/fsc_index.html
–If you live in a community without a fire safety council, now is the time to form one! Visit http://www.forevergreenforestry.com/SMM_FireSafe.html and http://www.cafiresafecouncil.org/ for more info on community fire safety.
— Set an example! Once you create your own native landscaped yard, help educate neighbors on the fire safe landscaping and home maintenance. You can make a difference to protect your neighborhood against destruction by wildfire.
CALFIRE: Ready for Wildfire Campaign
National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/samo/learn/management/firemanagement.htm
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Central and Southern California Region Coordinator
Fire Ecologist Marti Witter
Protect Your Home Chaparral Institute:
Theodore Payne Foundation:
UCLA Master Gardener Program Landscaping Tips:
UC Cooperative Extension
For more information on Flora & Fire topics, visit:
Fire safety landscaping: