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For The Garden

Firewise Landscaping

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: September, 2013, Page 66
Photos by Tom Bean

Now that her landscape is in “firewise mode,” Judy Mannen performs minor trimming and clean-up about once a month. For major pruning, she hires landscapers who have completed a course on wildfire survivable space.

Judy Mannen’s High-Country Property Is Designed With Wildfires in Mind

Judy Mannen is passionate about helping others create landscapes that incorporate the “art and science of firewise landscaping.” The topic captured her interest after she and her husband, Dion, moved to Prescott, Arizona, from Colleyville, Texas, in 2001. Defending against wildfire was the couple’s primary design consideration when building a new home on their 1.25-acre hillside lot. “Designing wildfire survivable space doesn’t mean removing all plant material and covering the ground with gravel,” she states. “There is a happy medium.”

In Texas, Mannen, who is an experienced gardener, won landscape design awards, and was eager to begin planning her Prescott landscape. To learn about local plants and growing conditions, she completed the University of Arizona Yavapai County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener course. Soon after, she was asked to volunteer on the Prescott Area Wildland/Urban Interface Commission, which coordinates fire-related issues across city, county, state and federal agencies. She became their public information officer and also was assistant coordinator for the Arizona Wildfire Academy. Now retired, she continues to be involved, offering her yard as a training ground for survivable-space landscape maintenance courses.

“Don’t delay creating your firewise landscape,” advises Mannen. “There are many terrific free resources to help you get started.” Following are examples of how she incorporated firewise design into her landscape.

A flowering butterfly bush flourishes near a stone buffer zone that serves as a firebreak for this high-country home.
Use a Buffer Zone
Around the perimeter of your home, create a strip at least 10 feet wide that has no plants greater than a foot tall. Also, check with your local fire department for other regulations on plant materials within a buffer zone. The strip may need to be wider, depending on surrounding vegetation and topography. Living With Wildfire: Homeowners’ Firewise Guide for Arizona (see Firewise Resources, Page 70) helps determine the recommended width for varied situations.

“A buffer zone requires a change in mindset for many people—myself included—moving from a region where landscapes have foundation plants tucked next to the home,” Mannen comments. In her firewise design, she surrounded the house with stone to serve as a buffer zone and form a path.

Add Plant Islands
Create small sections of plants in naturalistic groupings (islands) while allowing sufficient open space to inhibit fire from jumping from one group to another. To thin existing plants, Mannen suggests walking through an area with your arms spread wide. “If you can walk without touching plants, that gives you an estimate of sufficient open space between islands.”

Eliminate Fuel Ladders
A fuel ladder exists where plant materials growing at varying levels—including dried grasses, pine needles, plant litter, groundcovers, shrubs and trees—are in close proximity. This allows fire to climb from one “rung” to the next, spreading swiftly from ground level to treetops. Mannen eliminates fuel ladders in her yard by removing low branches on juniper, manzanita, piñon pine and scrub oak. She also regularly removes dried grasses at the trees’ bases.

Unexpected treasures popped up after Mannen created plant islands and cleared out fuel ladders. Lichen-covered boulders, once hidden beneath scrub brush, now add structural elements to the landscape. Sunlight reaches the soil, helping native grass and wildflower seeds to sprout. After the grasses dry out, Mannen cuts them down with a weedwacker within 50 feet of the house. Deer graze other grasses to the ground.

Photos - From left: Rather than fence in flower beds near the home, Judy Mannen chose deer- and rabbit-resistant plants to line paths. She pruned low branches on pine trees to eliminate fire ladders. • During the design phase, the homeowners surrounded the entry courtyard with nonflammable materials from their house and driveway. This allowed for foundation plants to provide seasonal color.
Rethink Plant Options
During the design process, it may be possible to incorporate modifications to retain specific plant specimens. For example, the Mannen’s lot included an alligator juniper tree that is more than 100 years old growing within the home site’s buffer zone. “I walked the property with the Prescott fire marshal for a safety evaluation, and we discussed how to save that magnificent tree,” Mannen recalls. Because her home is constructed with a concrete tile roof and other materials that are unlikely to catch fire, its structure could basically envelop and protect the tree’s location. Since the tree was considered part of the home’s footprint, it did not need to be cut down.

Manzanita shrubs (Arctostaphylos pringlei and A. pungens) on the lot provide another example of how planning can save native plants. Manzanitas offer a variety of useful features. They are extremely drought-tolerant, feature striking cinnamon-colored bark, and they attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other creatures that like to feed on their flower nectar and fruit. However, manzanitas contain volatile compounds that ignite readily, with flames that can leap up to eight times a shrub’s height. So, their landscape siting requires careful consideration.

Mannen planned to keep an existing group of the mature shrubs in her front yard, where their stunning bark was in view. In addition, their location is surrounded by the asphalt street, pavestone driveway and stone buffer zone, all serving as firebreaks. She regularly controls potential fuel ladders by removing the manzanitas’ lower branches as well as surrounding plant litter.

“Our area’s native plants are so beautiful, and they provide for native wildlife,” comments Mannen. “With planning and regular maintenance, it is possible to maintain a naturalistic appearance in a firewise landscape.”

Photos - From left: A wide stone buffer zone without plants serves as a firebreak around the residence. The flagstone path acts as another firebreak as it winds past plant islands on the lot. • The manzanita’s twisted structure and cinnamon-colored bark create unique sculpture in the landscape.
Defensible Space
First used in the 1980s, the term “defensible space” referred to plant management practices focused on providing firefighters with a greater opportunity to protect structures. However, firefighters cannot be everywhere at once. By following current “survivable space” guidelines for landscape design, plant selection and building materials, homeowners can make it less likely that their residences will be ignited during a wildfire, even if firefighters are not on the scene.

Planning Survivable Space—Living With Wildfire: Homeowners’ Firewise Guide for Arizona;

Wildfire Survivable Space—University of Arizona Yavapai County Cooperative Extension, Creating Wildfire-Defensible Space for Your Home and Property and other publications relevant for many southwestern regions; There also is a link to a list of Yavapai County area landscape professionals who have completed a course on wildfire survivable space.

City of Prescott Fire Department—Offers free landscape vegetation assessments as well as free chipper and removal service for brush piles that you clear from your property. Provides presentations for homeowners’ associations and other neighborhood groups. Find related information at or call (928) 777-1700 to schedule. Also ask about a program that assists homeowners with fire fuel mitigation costs. (Check with your local fire department for similar programs.)
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