5 Fire-Resistant Landscaping Ideas for San Diego

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Pine cones on the ground with trees in the background

Every year, wildfires roar across Southern California, burning everything in their path. By incorporating a few fire-resistant landscaping ideas, you can drastically reduce the risk of those wildfires reaching your San Diego home. You can also increase the chances that firefighters will be able to save your home if the flames get close despite your best efforts. 

In this article, we’ll go over these five steps you can take to make your home and its landscape fire-resistant:

  1. Use only fire-resistant plants
  2. Create a firebreak with a retaining wall or fire-resistant fence
  3. Replace plants with hardscapes wherever possible
  4. Mulch plant beds generously with inorganic material
  5. Get rid of your lawn

1. Use only fire-resistant plants

large area of San Diego sunflower
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters | Flickr | public domain

There’s no such thing as a fireproof plant. But some plants are unusable as fuel or less likely to catch fire than others. Many San Diego native plants are fire-resistant in addition to being drought-tolerant and low-maintenance. 

What should you look for when shopping for fire-resistant plants? The best choices will:

  • Retain moisture in the leaves
  • Produce little to no sap or resin
  • Accumulate very little dry or dead material (leaves, wood, etc) within the plant

Just a few fire-resistant San Diego natives include salvia, San Diego sunflower, and all native succulents.

As there are fire-resistant plants, there are also extremely fire-prone plants. Do your research before planting anything new in your landscape to find out if it burns quickly and easily or produces a lot of flammable debris. Some fire-prone plants you should avoid at all costs are eucalyptus trees, pine trees, and most conifers.

2. Create a firebreak with a retaining wall or fire-resistant fence

A firebreak is an obstacle that stops fire from spreading. You can create a firebreak around your backyard, front yard, or entire property by surrounding it with a fence or retaining wall made of fire-resistant material. 

Stone or concrete retaining walls are one of the best ways to shield your home from fire because they’re so thick and sturdy. Stone and concrete are both nonflammable, so it would be very difficult for a wildfire to get past a retaining wall. Adding a retaining wall also means breaking your landscape into multiple levels, which creates yet another obstacle in the fire’s path. 

If a retaining wall isn’t an option for you because of the high cost, a fire-resistant fence is the next best thing. Here are some guidelines to follow to build a fence that’s effective as a firebreak:

  • Use a fire-resistant material such as vinyl, metal, or composite
  • Never include any wooden pieces
  • Install solid panels that can block embers and heatwaves (rather than pickets, lattice, chain-link, or another design with gaps) 

3. Replace plants with hardscapes wherever possible

stone retaining wall
Mike McCune | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

As we’ve already talked about, there’s no such thing as a fireproof plant. That’s why the most fire-resistant landscapes include as few plants as possible. Sparse vegetation doesn’t have to mean an empty landscape. You can fill that space with hardscapes instead!

A hardscape is any piece of your landscape that isn’t a living, growing thing. A paver pathway, a fence, a patio, a pergola, and a rock garden are all examples of hardscapes. Any of these features would be much less likely to catch fire and spread flames than plant material. 

So, maybe you install a pathway through your backyard to minimize the amount of grass that could fuel a fire in the future. Or maybe you add a handful of decorative boulders instead of a new hedge. 

Because hardscapes vary so much in size, materials, cost, and function, there are a million different projects you could undertake. You can build a DIY paver patio for around $1,000, hire a contractor to build you a custom pergola for up to $6,000, or design a simple rock garden that only costs you around $100 or less in materials and an hour or two of work on the installation. Build whatever you have the time and budget for. 

There’s only one rule in choosing hardscapes for a fire-resistant landscape: DON’T USE WOOD! A landscape feature made of wood will burn as easily as the plants it’s replacing. Instead, choose features made of nonflammable or fire-resistant materials such as pavers, stone, concrete, fiberglass, vinyl, or metal

4. Mulch plant beds generously with inorganic material

Mulch is the loose material you lay around the base of your plants to protect their roots from extreme heat and cold and to keep weeds from growing in your plant beds. Be careful about what kind of mulch you use in your fire-resistant landscape. 

DON’T use organic mulches such as:DO use inorganic mulches such as:
Shredded barkGravel
Wood chipsRocks
Pine strawDecomposed granite
Any kind of paperShredded rubber

Organic mulches are popular because they’re usually the most affordable options and they’re healthier for your soil than inorganic material. However, there’s a major downside to organic mulches if you live in a fire-prone area like San Diego. They’re highly flammable and will definitely help flames reach your home if you use them in plant beds near the house. 

Inorganic mulches, on the other hand, won’t burn (or will be very difficult to burn, in the case of rubber). And they typically aren’t too much more expensive than organic mulch.

Not only does inorganic mulch reduce potential fuel for wildfires in your landscape — it can actually protect your plants from burning if you use enough of it. Spread a thick layer of fire-resistant inorganic mulch several feet out from your plants in all directions to create a sort of firebreak around the base of the plants.

5. Get rid of your lawn

ice plant groundcover with purplish-pink flowers
strawberryindigo | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Having a lot of grass in your yard, even if it’s a grass type perfect for San Diego, can be a pain for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that all that grass is potential fuel for a wildfire. Why not replace it with something that won’t help the flames spread?

One grass alternative is artificial turf. We know, it seems taboo, but many artificial turfs these days look just like real grass, so your neighbors would be none the wiser. Though the plastic polymers in artificial turf will melt under extreme heat, they won’t add fuel to the flames or help them spread, which is a major step up from live grass. 

Another option is to replace your grass with a fire-resistant groundcover. Groundcovers are plants that grow in a spreading habit low to the ground, so they cover your yard in a way similar to grass. Some fire-resistant groundcovers that can help stop the spread of fire around your home include:

  • Sedum
  • Ice plant
  • Carpet bugleweed
  • Rock cress

How fire-resistant landscaping can save your home

No matter what Smokey Bear says, you can’t prevent forest fires. Even without the factor of human error, these fires are a natural and vital part of Southern California’s ecosystem. You can’t do anything about that, but you can cut off the fire’s path to your home using fire-resistant materials and design techniques in your landscape. 

Fire-resistant landscaping ideas like the ones we’ve presented here will create a barrier between your home and the flames. 

Firefighters can take advantage of that barrier. If a large space clear of fire surrounds your home on all sides, firefighters will have room to operate safely. Saving your home would be easier than saving a home without fire-resistant landscaping. 

San Diego has several laws and regulations related to fire-resistant landscaping practices that you should be aware of. Here are a few:

  • Follow defensible space guidelines: Basically, this means you can only include certain landscape elements in their designated zones around your home. Learn more about defensible space and landscape zones from San Diego County’s website.
  • Space out your plants: Leaving plenty of empty space between plants gives wildfires no opportunity to spread near your home. According to San Diego County’s guidelines, all trees should be at least 10 feet apart, and all bushes should have a distance between them at least two times the height of the bush. Check this fire-resistant landscaping guide from CAL FIRE for more detailed spacing requirements. 
  • Don’t clear too much land: You might be tempted to remove all vegetation from around your home to reduce the risk of fire damage, but that isn’t a viable option. Some vegetation is necessary for erosion control and native wildlife preservation. San Diego County has ordinances in place regarding how much and where you can clear land

The easiest way to landscape for wildfires in San Diego

Fire-resistant landscaping is no simple task. Effectively protecting your home from wildfires requires careful planning, smart landscape design, and hours of physical labor to actually install the elements. 

Don’t have the time or energy for all that? That’s no excuse to leave your home and family vulnerable to wildfires. Instead, you can hire a local landscaping professional in minutes, and they can handle the rest for you. Local pros offer everything from fire-resistant landscape design and installation to regular maintenance that keeps your lawn neat and free of debris that might act as fuel for the fire. 

Main Photo Credit: Lum3n | Pexels

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