Lean, Clean, and Green

Living with fireDefensible Space | Defensible Space FAQ | Wildfire Approaches | Lean, Green, and Clean


  1. Emphasize the use of low growing herbaceous (non-woody) plants that are kept green during the fire season through irrigation if necessary.  Herbaceous plants include lawn, clover, a variety of ground covers, bedding plants, bulbs, perennial flowers, and conservation grasses.

  2. Emphasize use of mulches, rock, and non-combustible hard surfaces (concrete sidewalks, brick patios, and asphalt driveways).  Check with your subdivision or community to see if permits are required.

  3. Deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs are acceptable if they are kept green, free of dead plant material, ladder fuels are removed, and individual plants or groups of plants are arranged in a manner in which adjacent wildland vegetation cannot convey a fire through them to the structure.  Shorter deciduous shrubs are preferred.

  4. Minimize the use of ornamental coniferous shrubs and trees (such as juniper, arborvitae, pine) and tall exotic grasses.

  5. Where permitted, most wildland shrubs and trees should be removed from this zone and replaced with more desirable alternatives (see “Examples of some Plants for Wildfire Safety”).  Individual specimens or small groups of wildland shrubs and trees can be retained so long as they are kept healthy, free of dead wood, and pruned to reduce the amount of fuel and height, and ladder fuels are removed.

  6. For some areas, substantial removal of wildland vegetation may not be allowed.  In these instances, wildland vegetation should conform to the recommended separation distances, be kept free of dead plant material, be pruned to remove ladder fuels and reduce fuel load, and arranged so it cannot readily convey a fire from the wildlands to the house.  Please become familiar with local requirements before removal of wildland vegetation.

  7. Tree limbs within 15 feet of a chimney, encroaching on power lines, or touching the house should be removed.


“When a wildfire comes through your neighborhood, could your house survive on its own?”

A dramatic question, but one we need to consider when living in an environment where wildfire is common.  Firescaping is landscape design that reduces house and property vulnerability to wildfire.  The goal is to develop a landscape whose design and choice of plants offers the best fire protection and enhances the property.  The idea is to surround the house with things that are less likely to burn.  It is imperative that when building homes in wildfire-prone areas, that fire safety be a major factor in landscape design.  Appropriate manipulation of the landscape can make a significant contribution toward wildfire survival.

Firescape integrates traditional landscape functions and needs into a design that reduces the threat from wildfire.  It need not look much different than a traditional design.  In addition to meeting a homeowner’s aesthetic desires and functional needs such as entertaining, playing, storage, erosion control – firescape also includes vegetation modification techniques, planting for fire safety, defensible space principles, and use of fire safety zones.

There are three things that determine wildfire intensity:  topography, weather, and vegetation.  Of these, we can only affect vegetation.  Through proper plant selection, placement and maintenance, we can diminish the possibility of ignition, lower fire intensity, and reduce how quickly a fire spreads.  This will increase a home’s survivability.

In firescaping, plant selection is primarily determined by a plan’t ability to reduce the wildfire threat.  Other considerations may be important such as appearance, ability to hold the soil in place, and wildlife habitat value.  The traditional foundation planting of junipers is not a viable solution in a firescape design. Minimize use of evergreen shrubs and trees within 30 feet of a structure, because junipers, other conifers and broadleaf evergreens contain oils, resins and waxes that make these plants burn with great intensity..  Ue ornamental grasses and berries sparingly because they also can be highly flammable.  Choose “fire smart” plants.  these are plants with a high moisture content.  They are low growing.  Their stems and leaves are not resinous, oily or waxy.  Deciduous trees are generally more fire resistant than evergreens because they have a higher moisture content when in leaf, but a lower fuel volume when dormant. Placement and maintenance of trees and shrubs is as important as actual plant selection.  When planning tree placement in the landscape, remember their size at maturity.  Keep tree limbs at leaast 15 feet from chimneys, power lines and structures.  Specimen trees can be used near a structure if pruned properly and well irrigated.

Firescape design uses driveways, lawns, walkways, patios, parking areas, areas with inorganic mulches, and fences constructed of nonflammable materials such as rock, brick, or cement to reduce fuel loads and create fuel breaks.  Fuel breaks are a vital component in every firescape design.  Water features such as pools, ponds, or streams can also be fuel breaks.  Areas where wildland vegetation has been thinned or replaced with less flammable plants are the traditional fuel break.  Remember, while bare ground is effective from the wildfire viewpoint, it is not promoted as a firescape element due to aesthetic, soil erosion, and other concerns.

A home located on a brushy site above a south or west-facing slope will require more extensive wildfire safety landscape planning than a house situated on a flat lot with little vegetation around it.  Boulders and rocks become fire retardant elements in a design.  Whether or not a site can be irrigated will greatly influence location of hardscape (concrete, asphalt, wood decks, etc.), plant selection and placement.  Prevailing winds, seasonal weather, local fire history, and characteristics of native vegetation surrounding the site are additional important considerations.

The area closest to a structure out to 30 feet will be the highest water use area in the fire safe landscape.  This is an area where highly flammable fuels are kept to a minimum and plants are kept green throughout the fire season.  Use well-irrigated perennials here.  Another choice is low growing or non-woody deciduous plants.  Lawn is soothing visually, and is also practical as a wildfire safety feature.  Rock mulches are good choices.  Patios, masonry or rock planters are excellent fuel breaks and increase wildfire safety.  Be creative with boulders, riprap, dry streambeds and sculptural inorganic elements.

When designing a landscape for fire safety, remember less is better.  Simplify visual lines and groupings.  A fire safe landscape lets plants and garden elements reveal their innate beauty by leaving space between plants and groups of plants.  In firescaping, the open spaces are more important than the plants.

Lawn can be an effective firescape feature.  But extensive areas of turfgrass may not be right for everyone.  Some good alternatives include clover, ground covers, and conservation grasses that are kept green during the fire season through irrigation