Fire in North Central Washington can be a powerful and dynamic force. It alters landscapes as well as livelihoods in a matter of minutes, days, or even weeks. Each year, more people migrate to the greater Leavenworth area from different parts of the world so that they can experience life nestled within the beauty of this wild and scenic environment. There is a gravity to these vistas that is hard to escape. Many newcomers have not grown up with fire and often, it does not play into their decision on where to settle down and spread their roots. Yet, every rose bush has its thorns and the Wenatchee Watershed is no different. The snowy winter, glorious spring, blue-skied summer and prolonged fall come at a price; mainly a shortage of precipitation during the hottest and driest portions of the year. This type of climate can be described as monsoonal and it lends itself exceptionally well to wildfires. Historically, fire has been a common part of our landscape and many of the native plants that live here have evolved to co-exist with regular intervals of low intensity burning. Some even require fire for reproduction. However, forest practices (including extensive logging and fire suppression) over the last century have led to an overabundance of fuels in our forests and now, catastrophic fire events are a symptom of this illness.
So how does one prepare for living with fire? As landowners, we have the good fortune of being able to take control over our personal landholdings even if the larger tracts surrounding us are out of our realm of influence. As stewards, we have the ability to make decisions about the interaction between our homesteads and our neighboring forests. Wise landscaping choices are a key piece in preparing ourselves for an eventual encounter with fire.
So maybe you do not personally see yourself as an individual with an aptitude for gardening. Or, maybe the thought of taking on an extensive landscaping overhaul is not how you would choose to spend your free time. The good news is that there are some very simple steps any homeowner can take that can help to protect your home in the event of a forest fire.
One of the easiest jobs is to create a boundary of tended yard around your home. Firewise Communities offers excellent information on the way to create Zones of defensible space around the home; http://www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/be-firewise/home-and-landscape.aspx .The first and most important space should extend at least 30 feet around the footprint of your house. Keep in mind that decks should be considered as an exterior extension of your home so your measurements should take this into consideration as well. Within this boundary, yards or landscaping plants should be regularly irrigated, trimmed and thinned to remove excess flammable material. In the spring, this area should be raked free of debris and fallen sticks. Larger trees should be high-limbed to 14 feet above ground level and should be kept away from the main structure of the house whenever possible. It is within this zone that many homeowners focus the bulk of their irrigating or install in-ground watering systems. Keep in mind that in the event of a real fire emergency, power to your home may be lost, limiting the amount of irrigating that is possible during a fire event. Irrigating should be a regular part of your landscaping routine, not the fall back plan. If irrigating is not an option for your situation, aim to keep dormant grasses mowed short, especially around the foundation of the house or install xeriscape flower beds. More information on xeriscaping can be found at http://www.arboretum.wsu.edu/xeriscaping.html. Many xeriscape native plants for our region are also fire-wise plants.
When installing landscaping, choose the correct materials for mulching or beautifying around your home. Beauty bark can become a fire hazard. During a large fire event, hot fire brands can travel over a mile from the point of ignition. Non-irrigated bark mulch can offer brands a place to smolder and ignite. When looking at options for top-dressing around your home, consider small or medium sized stone to create a tidy appearance.
The next step on the path to a fire-wise home is to choose the correct plants for inclusion in your overall landscape plan. Not all plants are created equal and some plants are more fire resistant than others. Many agencies have put together lists of plants that are well suited for fire-prone regions. One resource for fire-wise landscaping in Eastern Washington comes from Kitittas County; https://www.co.kittitas.wa.us/firemarshal/documents/Firewise-Firescape-Brochure.pdf. Another comes from Oregon State University and can be found at: http://www.firefree.org/images/uploads/FIR_FireResPlants_07.pdf . Included in these documents are a number of recommended plants for landscaping around your home. It is important to know that fire-adapted plants are not immune to fire (they may still blacken and die under such extreme conditions) but have been chosen because they are less likely to ignite and increase the fire hazard around the home since they contain fewer volatile oils or resins.
Below are some of my personal favorite fire-wise plants that do very well around our region:
Ground Covers: Rock Cress, Epimedium, Creeping Phlox, Hens and Chicks and Kinnikinnick
Perennials: Autumn Joy Sedum, Sea Thrift, Columbine, Coreopsis, Fireweed, Coralbells, Irises, Lavender, Lupine, Penstemon and Echinacea.
Beauty abounds! Fire-wise does not have to equate to sacrifice when it comes to the attractiveness of your landscape. And as always, Happy Gardening!