Foothills Drought Conditions, Fire Mitigation and Plant Materials
By Jan Boone
Picture courtesy of Colorado State Forest Service
We all have watched with dread the fires that have ravaged both Northern and Southern California in the past months. As someone with family members and friends impacted by several of these fires in my home state, I can’t help but think it’s time to re-examine the more serious aspects of safety in foothills living and our gardens, for the off chance our turn will be next.
According to the Colorado Climate Center, as of January 2018, 99% of our state’s population is being impacted by some degree of drought. The Foothills and surrounding Metro area is still classified as Moderate, but as we all know weather patterns can impact us very quickly. This includes the scary fact our snowpack is currently between 50-70% of average. Yes, our typical snowiest months are March and April, so as I write, we are halfway through March and we’ve only received half our normal snowfall. Follow their website at (www.climate.colostate.edu).
Since our surrounding environment is heavily forested with peaks and canyons and our climate is arid, we’re at a high risk for wildland fire destruction The potential of a wildland fire impacts most every aspect of our daily living. Here’s a challenge: when was the last time you considered fire mitigation around your house and property?? Consider places where wildlands meet more urban-based building structures and how they can be defended against fire.
The Colorado State Forest Service (www.csfa.colostate.edu: https://static.colostate.edu/client-files/csfs/pdfs/FIRE2012_1_DspaceQuickGuide.pdf) has great guidelines on recognizing the Home Ignition Zones that starts with two basic principles: Structure Ignitability (your house and surrounding facilities) and Defensible space (the area around your home). While it’s true your homeowner’s insurance may help point out potential hazards they see on and around your immediate house structure, there are still greenhouses, storage sheds, barns, etc. to also consider. Have you thought of little things that may prove impactful? Do you allow pine needles to collect under any raised wooden decks, or against your siding? What about your gutters? Do you store items in potentially flammable containers up against the house? What about the woodpecker holes in siding you say you’ll get to later or the big dead pine bough that overhangs the roof? These all may impact your dwelling in case of a wildland fire.
Let’s also focus on the garden and space around your home. Do you worry about the dried cheat grass in a space next door? How about the small attractive pine you planted next to your house a few years ago? The dried needles it may drop are trouble!! All of these circumstances are easy targets with potentially sad outcomes, especially in wind driven ground fires where sparks can ignite your plantings and house. Do you watch for ladder fuels (i.e. dead pine boughs that start on shrubs, especially firs, at ground level and may rise 2-3 ft to current growth in a young trees. These fuels enable sparks to quickly move vertically, easily turning a ground or grass fire into a crown fire at treetop level .
Now turn your attention specifically to garden plants and landscaping. (CSU fact sheet #6.305 on Firewise Plant Materials: extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/natural-resources/firewise-plant-materials-6-305) We are often asked during the summer months “What plants won’t attract deer or elk”?? We can turn that question around for the purpose of this blog article and ask “What plants are more fire resistant”?? If we think of your home’s exterior space in Zones, there are 3 Defensible Space Zones: Zone 1 is 0-15 feet from your structure, Zone 2 is 30-100 feet from your structure. And Zone 3 100 feet and beyond. Here’s some added information to help.
Picture courtesy of Colorado State Forest Service
If you you’re collecting water in Zone 1, as in a rain barrel (CSU Fact Sheet # 6.707: http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/natural-resources/rainwater-collection-colorado-6-707/) or maybe a water feature with a pool, you may want to consider keeping a good hose nearby, especially to help spray water on the base of the house or to water plants near the house. A good friend in Napa did this using water from a swimming pool to help save a wood fence! However, if you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately without taking time to soak anything. Look for low growing ground covers and some wildflowers for this specific zone.
Zone 2 and 3 plantings may be subject to loss or damage from a wildland fire despite best efforts, but you can help protect the Zone 2 garden occupants by following these guidelines found in above referenced Fact Sheet on Firewise Plants. Look for plants with these specific characteristics: open branches and sparse vegetation, low sap or resin contents and good moisture content. While eliminating dead or dying branches or dried diseased leaves is work, the payback is a healthier garden as well as less available volatile materials in case of fire. Zone 3 is apt to be native growth, including tall pines. This zone may be a priority of first responders in case of a wildland fire. Consider and ask about plants or trees that may regenerate themselves after a fire.
Here are some good low water, native wildflowers and plants that may be suitable while also creating a reduced water need in a fire wise garden. These are also beneficial to pollinators. A fact sheet that can help with this is Native Herbaceous Perennials for Colorado: http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/native-herbaceous-perennials-for-colorado-landscapes-7-242/. Also, low-water native plants for pollinators: extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/native/FrontRange.pdf. In early growing season at our altitude, look for Nodding onion, Firecracker or Blue Mist Penstemon and Pasque flower to name a few. Mid to late season you can also include Milkweed, Harebells, Blanket flower (Gaillardia), Beebalm, Black-eyed Susan, native Yarrow, Aster, Oriental Poppy, even Hens and Chicks. Specific shrubs varieties may also include Rabbitbrush, Chokecherry, Golden Currant and Woods Rose, Cotoneaster, Serviceberry, Aspen. some maples and Mountain Ash.
The Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department is hoping to hire a wildland fire educator in the coming months so watch for further information we can share should this hiring occur. In the meantime, prepare as best you can with some of the ideas mentioned in this article. Here’s wishing everyone a peaceful and safe season in our gardens and surrounding communities these coming months. To those who may be called upon to help protect us in case of emergencies, we honor your commitment and thank you.