Fire-Resistant Landscaping Ideas for Los Angeles

Wildfire raging through trees in a wooded area

The Los Angeles sun might put you at ease, but the threat of wildfires won’t. With the right fire-wise precautions, you can stem a fire’s spread, protect your home, and make it safer for firefighters. 

Although it’s been a wet start to 2022, Los Angeles county consistently experiences moderate to severe drought conditions. When coupled with low humidity and strong winds, the area can be a prime target for wildfires, especially the Hillside communities. Although you can’t eliminate the chance you’ll experience a fire, our landscaping tips can prevent it from escalating.

1. Create defensible space

illustration of creating defensible space around a home to protect against wildfires

“Defensible space” sounds a bit like a moat around your castle, and that’s not far off. It’s a barrier between a building and the surrounding vegetation. This space can slow or stop a wildfire’s spread. Plus, firefighters can work safely in this zone in the event a wildfire is encroaching on your home. 

Defensible space is made up of three zones, each with its own set of guidelines. If you have limited time or money, focus on Zone 0, since this is the area that determines whether a fire will spread to your home or not. Your local fire department will be happy to assist with any questions you have. 

Zone 0: Ember-Resistant Zone 

Radius: 0-5 feet from buildings (and decks)

This zone is all about eliminating anything that could possibly ignite. A majority of fires are ignited by traveling embers from things like campfires and cigarettes (they can travel up to 25 miles from their original source). If a wayward ember lands in Zone 0, it’s essential that there are no materials for it to ignite. 

So how do you eliminate the chance of ignition? The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has a thorough guide for Zone 0. 

  • Use noncombustible materials:
    • Mulch areas with gravel, rocks or stone
    • For gates and fences, replace the portion within 5 feet from your home with something like metal
    • Use concrete, pavers, or brick for walkways around the home
  • Grow fire-resistant plants only that are:
    • Nonwoody
    • Well-watered
    • Low-growing
  • Cut back limbs within 10 feet of the chimney or any stovepipe outlet.
  • Relocate combustible materials like: 
    • Seating and cushions
    • Planters 
    • Lawn furniture
    • Waste bins
    • Boats
    • Vehicles
  • Move propane tanks and gas canisters to Zone 2. The safest way to store these is in a shed with a 10-foot, ember-resistant radius around the perimeter. 
  • Move firewood to Zone 2 (not under your deck). 
  • Maintain your landscape by:
    • Removing dead or decaying plant material (leaves, weeds, branches, grass)
    • Clearing out debris from your gutters, roof, deck, stairs, and other structures 

Because Zone 0 is so important, it requires special attention to detail. Brooms, doormats, and lawn tools with wooden handles are often overlooked. Do a thorough audit of the space and ask a family member or friend to be a second set of eyes. 

Zone 1: Lean, Clean, and Green Zone

Radius: 5-30 feet from buildings

This zone helps prevent fires from “laddering up” — a process where fire finds fuel that can carry it up to taller vegetation. Maintaining space between lower vegetation and trees is key.

Lean: 

  • Cut away branches that overhang the roof.
  • Keep at least 10 feet of space between tree branches. 
  • Shrubs should be a minimum of 10 feet from the perimeter of nearby trees. 
  • Maintain space between trees and combustible materials like lawn furniture and playsets. 

Clean: 

  • Relocate flammable plants away from windows. 
  • Clean under decks, stairs, or balconies for structures that extend into Zone 1.
  • Remove vegetation from beneath trees. 

Green: 

  • Everything in this zone should be alive. Dead, dying, or dry vegetation should be removed. 
  • Keep grass in this area shorter than 3 inches and well watered.
  • Remove dead or dry pine needles. 

Zone 2: Reduce Fuel Zone

Radius: 30-100 feet from buildings

In an ideal, fire-safe world, you’d remove all combustible materials from your property. But that would mean giving up some of your favorite plants and outdoor living structures. Plus, homeowners don’t always have the money to spend completely redesigning their backyard. 

That’s why Zone 2 just focuses on reducing the fuel available for fires, not totally eliminating it. 

  • Keep grass under 4 inches tall.
  • You can keep debris like pine needles, leaves, and bark up to a depth of 3 inches.
  • Keep a 10-foot radius of bare soil around woodpiles. 
  • Maintain space between trees and shrubs as discussed for Zone 1. 
  • Keep a 10-foot, ember-resistant zone around sheds and storage areas containing propane storage tanks. 

2. Choose fire-resistant plants

A fire-resistant landscape doesn’t have to look barren. Fire-resistant plants are a great way to add color and life to your backyard. As long as they’re properly maintained, these plants won’t contribute to a fire if it starts. 

Plant recommendations

  • Rockrose
  • Ice plant
  • Aloe 
  • Hedging roses 
  • Bush honeysuckle
  • Currant
  • Cotoneaster
  • Sumac
  • Shrub apples
  • Maple tree
  • Poplar tree
  • Cherry tree

Characteristics of fire-resistant plants

No plant is totally fire-proof. Any plant can ignite, but they’re much less likely to intensify a fire if they have these qualities. 

  • Don’t produce a lot of debris or dead materials (like seed pods)
  • Require little watering
  • Low-growing (stays close to the ground)
  • Retain a lot of moisture, especially in the stems and leaves
  • Little or no amount of resins or volatile oils
  • Deep root system
  • Don’t have bark that’s papery or loose

Growing plants on a slope

Fire safety is extra important if you have any slopes in your yard. The rate of a fire’s spread can increase by up to a factor of 6 depending on the steepness of the hill. To mitigate the slope effect, ensure proper spacing between shrubs and trees. 

infographic depicting the recommended spacing for plants and trees for wildfire-prone areas

These recommendations come from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Slope sizeProper
shrub distance
Proper
tree distance
Flat to mild slope 
(less than 20%)
2 times
shrub’s height
10 ft
Mild to moderate slope 
(20% to 40%)
4 times
shrub’s height
20 ft
Moderate to steep slope
(greater than 40%)
6 times
shrub’s height
30 ft

3. Create firebreaks 

Hardscaping, the non-living elements in your lawn, are great landscaping multitaskers. They can provide visual interest and create outdoor living spaces where you can enjoy nature with family and friends. 

Hardscaping elements also can serve as firebreaks. A firebreak is an obstacle that slows or stops the spread of a fire. They’re especially great additions to Zone 0, where it’s most important to snuff out sparks. 

Ideas for firebreaks

  • Concrete walkway around the perimeter of your house 
  • Gravel in flower beds
  • Paver patio 
  • Rock garden
  • Stone retaining wall (especially for sloped areas)

4. Protect your hardscaping from fires

Don’t worry if your current hardscaping isn’t all cement — following fire-safe maintenance for wood elements is a great idea too. 

Decks

We get it: Sometimes you want a wooden deck. However, it’s a big hazard to have such a large combustible structure right against your home. There are a few steps you can take to minimize the risk of fire damaging your deck and home. 

Maintain your deck:

  • Replace rotted wood (which ignites more easily).
  • Clean the surface and between the deck boards.
  • Remove debris underneath and around your deck. Check between the deck and the siding for fallen needles and leaves.

Add fire-safety measures to your deck:

  • Build a deck enclosure or add skirting.
  • Add metal flashing between the house and the ledger board. 
  • For extra protection, add a noncombustible deck board right against your house. 

Pro tip: You may be worried about oil-based stains, but studies have shown they don’t increase a deck’s risk of burning.

Don’t forget to pack up furniture, propane tanks, cushions, and anything else combustible and move it to a different zone when there’s a threat of fire. If you’re considering a new deck, opt for non-combustible materials like fire-retardant-treated boards for the joists and decking. 

Fences

When it comes to fencing, focus on Zone 0. Any fencing that falls within 5 feet of your house should be replaced with a noncombustible material like metal. 

Vinyl fencing won’t ignite from embers alone, but it will burn if exposed directly to flames. Keep debris clear from the bottom as you would with a wooden fence and consider replacing it with metal.

Additional ways to prevent your fence from igniting:

  • Keep your fence clean and remove debris from between the slats and at the bottom.
  • Leave 1 inch of space between the soil and the bottom of the fence completely debris-free to help prevent rotting wood. 
  • Steer clear of privacy fences; embers can stick in the cross section between the horizontal and vertical supports.

5. Use fire-resistant mulch

Mulch is the MVP of landscaping — it keeps moisture in, controls erosion, and prevents weeds. But it also can be kindling for a fire. 

You can still receive the benefits of mulch by choosing an inorganic one like rocks and gravel. Brick chips are another great fire-safe option that also provide a pop of rich color. 

Avoid these mulches:

  • Straw
  • Shredded rubber
  • Pine bark
  • Pine needles
  • Cedar bark

If you need the nutritional benefits organic mulch provides, go with composted wood chips. A study done by the University of California Cooperative Extension determined that was the safest choice out of eight organic mulches. Still, make sure you keep these in Zones 1 and 2.

Why is fire-resistant landscaping important for my Los Angeles home?

With warmer spring and summer temperatures and more intense dry seasons, the fire season in California is getting longer and longer. In 2021, wildfires burned over 2 million acres throughout the state. That’s why it’s more important than ever to do what you can (for yourself and your neighbors) to reduce the chances that a fire will escalate on your property. The threat of a wildfire can be frightening, but you can take comfort knowing you’ve gone through the proper steps to make your landscape as fire-resistant as possible.

If you need a hand implementing our fire-safe tips, contact a Lawn Love professional landscaping team. They’ll design and install plants and hardscaping to take the work off your shoulders. 

Main Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.