Firescaping your Garden
This article was first published in the Weekend Argus of 17 January 2015 – Independent Newspapers
This weekend marks the 15th Anniversary of the most serious fire event ever recorded on the Cape Peninsula. The fires of 16-25 January, 2000, raged over 8 370 hectares and took nine days to put out.
At the end of the drama, twenty houses in Simonstown and several naval buildings were destroyed, whilst private and industrial properties were damaged across several suburbs.
The wildfires of 2000 started in two separate fires that broke out in Silvermine and Red Hill. The Silvermine fire took two hours to reach the outskirts of Noordhoek and Hout Bay, before changing direction and heading for Constantia.
The fire that broke out near the Red Hill informal settlement was driven towards homes in Misty Cliffs and Scarborough on the west coast of the peninsula. A change of wind direction three days later sent the fire towards Simonstown.
Over 90% of the fire-affected area had been invaded by invasive vegetation. In the years since 2000, researchers have repeatedly warned gardeners that invasive alien vegetation burns hotter and faster than fynbos. Moreover, homes near areas of dense stands of woody invasive vegetation are particularly vulnerable to runaway fires.
Protecting your suburb against wild fires is important. FireWise Communities is a concept originally developed in the U.S.A. (www.firewise.org) that has been adapted and implemented in South Africa (www.firewisesa.org.za). “The Firewise approach emphasizes community responsibility in designing a safe community as well as effective emergency response, individual responsibility for safer home construction and design, landscaping and maintenance”, says firewise expert, Val Charlton.
By firescaping the home ignition zone – the 10m area surrounding the home – home¬owners can substantially reduce the risk of their home becoming fuel for the inevitable fire.
Firescaping specifically refers to landscaping in ways that will reduce the probability of fire catching and spreading through the firescaped area.
How to survive
What can you do to make your garden more resistant to fire?
“Creating a ‘survivable space’ means modifying your property’s layout, hard landscaping materials and plantings to make it less likely that your home will catch alight during a wildfire”, says Charlton. The size of the survivable space is often expressed as a distance, extending outwards from the home and outbuildings. The distance varies, depending upon the type of natural vegetation growing near the home and the steepness of the slope.
The minimum survivable space should be at least 10m around the home. However, if the home sits on top of a 25% slope and is surrounded by woodland or dense brush, you need to extend this to 60m.
If this space encroaches into your neighbours properties, then it makes sense to work together and create a joint survivable space. Each owner should take responsibility for their own area, but work according to a jointly agreed hazard reduction plan.
“Remove all flammable plants within the survivable area, especially invasive plants such as wattle, pine and gum, as well as exotics such as bottlebrushes, melaleucas and conifers, as they burn hotter and fiercer than indigenous fynbos”, adds Charlton. Also remove shrubs and perennnials beneath larger trees or near large shrubs as these plants provide a ‘fire ladder’ for flames to ascend upwards to larger plants.
Carry out regular, common sense, maintenance checks. Remove all dead and decaying wood, fallen branches, and dead branches on your property. Clear all fuel material debris from around the base of trees. Prune away tree branches that overhang the house or any other flammable structure. Keep branches at least 6m away from a chimney. Prune off the lower branches of existing trees to about shoulder height.
A firescaped property comprises three planting zones:
*The patio or low resistance area. This is the zone adjacent to the house. It should consist of well irrigated fire resistant low-growing ground-covers and lawn, together with non-flammable hard landscaping such as flagstone walks, brick patios, stone retaining walls, gravel and inorganic mulches. Fire retardant small shrubs can also be planted. If you have to ration water during a drought, water only lawn and plants in this zone.
Avoid planting trees, climbers and medium or large shrubs directly up againstbuildings as these can become part of a ‘fire ladder’, carrying flames from plant to plant to house. Also avoid timber decking, wooden pergolas and archways, and organic mulches.
* The garden or medium resistance zone.Within the garden, create ‘island beds’ 3-5m apart surrounded by lawn, paving or gravel. Choose fire-resistant trees and shrubs, but make sure that they do not touch each other or create a ladder effect that can deliver a fire to your home. Plant low growing ground-covers between the shrubs.
* Perimeter or buffer zone. Plant low growing, fleshy-leaved ground-covers, hedging plants, large aloes and isolated forest trees that are fire-resistant and resprout when damaged by fire. Never use flammable fencing materials.
Plants for firescapes
Although no plant is fireproof, many plants have features that minimise the extent to which they contribute to the spread of veld fires.
Landscaping with fire retardant plants or plants that resprout after a fire is part of an overall fire defense plan. Choose from a range of firewise indigenous plants including:
* Ground-covers for sunny areas: Aloe brevifolia, arctotis, dymondia, gazania, Hermannia saccifera, Agathosma ovata ‘Kluitjieskraal’and vygies.
* Ground-covers for shady areas: Plectranthus verticillatus, P. neochilus and P. ciliates.
* Bulbs: Tulbaghia, agapanthus and watsonia.
* Small shrubs: Agathosma serpyllacea, Phylica ericoides, felicia, Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa), scabiosa. And Athanasia dentata.
* Shrubs & trees for island beds: Leucadendron salignum, L. conocarpodendron, Protea
nitida, P. cynaroides, Cape thatching reed (Elegia tectorum), Erica spp.,Salvia spp.,wild malva (Pelargonium cucullatum), Felicia echinata, fan aloe, coastal silver oak, wild olive and wild peach.
* Hedge plants: Krantz aloe, tick berry (Chrysanthemoides monilifera), dune crowberry (Searsia crenata) and camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus).
* Forest trees for perimeter: Wild almond (Brabejum stellatifolium), rooiels (Cunonia capensis), tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida), Cape holly (Ilex mitis) and Cape beech (Rapanaea melanophloeos).