A Complete Information to Designing a Firewise Panorama

As summers get hotter and prolonged droughts worsen, wildfires are more intense than ever. From the fire-prone West Coast to high desert mountain ranges to the dry open ranges of the South, wildfires pose a major threat to landowners of all types. However, you can strategically plant your yard to resist catching fire and protect your house from flames that may sweep through the region. 

Some landscape plants are highly flammable and resinous, while others have a high moisture content that makes them less likely to catch fire. Certain trees and shrubs produce a lot of burnable debris under their canopy, while others are more tidy and easy to prune. Fortunately, many of the best fire-resistant plant species also happen to be incredibly beautiful, low-maintenance, and drought-resilient.

But choosing firewise plants is only one aspect of creating a fire-resistant landscape. Defensible space, protective ground cover, plant thinning, and seasonal maintenance are also very important. Whether your home is rural or suburban, rented or owned, here is a step-by-step guide to planting an attractive landscape that is resistant to fire damage.

What Are the Principles of Firewise Landscape Design?

Create a defensible space with fire-resistant landscaping for home protection.

Firewise landscape design is the art and science of maintaining a yard that is less vulnerable to wildfire. Sometimes called “firescaping,” this method creates defensible space to protect your home from dangerous fires while still ensuring a beautiful landscape.

While firescaping recommendations vary across regions, the common key principles include:

Reduce the amount of combustible fuels around structures.

Use rock, inorganic mulch, and pavement close to the home.

Incorporate hardscaping areas like driveways, paths, or water features.

Choose deciduous, herbaceous species with high water content, prioritizing low-growing native plants that are resistant to drought.

Rake leaves, mow grasses, and regularly clean up dried plant debris.

Ensure adequate space between trees and shrubs to reduce foliage density. Regularly remove deadwood and ladder fuels near the base of tall plants.

What Plants Are Most Resistant to Fire?

Close-up of a blooming Aloe Vera in the garden. It features rosettes of thick, fleshy, lance-shaped leaves arranged in a spiral pattern, with serrated edges and a gray-green coloration. Aloe vera produces tall, slender stems topped with vibrant red tubular flowers that emerge in clusters.Use fire-resistant plants within 5-100 feet for home protection in wildfires.

Fire-resistant plants are typically deciduous, moisture-retaining, low in resin or volatile oils, and produce less burnable debris beneath their canopy. Herbaceous, low-growing plants are particularly advantageous at slowing the spread of fire toward a structure. 

In fire-prone areas, it is recommended to use firewise plants and trees within 5 to 100 feet of your home to reduce the amount of burnable plant fuel near your home during a wildfire event.

Examples of fire-resistant plants include:

  • Succulents like Aloe Vera and Sedum
  • Red Hot Poker
  • Russian Sage
  • Manzanita
  • Live Oak
  • California Bay Laurel
  • Japanese Maple
  • Crape Myrtle
  • Rockrose
  • Coral Bells
  • Beardtongue
  • Echinacea
  • Creeping Thyme
  • Yarrow
  • Yucca

Keep in mind that even a firewise plant is not 100% resistant to fire. It is important to maintain proper spacing, pruning, and irrigation to keep these plants healthy and green. Dead plant debris that accumulates close to the ground is a major potential source of fire fuel. 

9 Steps to Design a Firewise Landscape 

Your landscape doesn’t need to be bland or ugly just because you live in a wildfire-prone area. A firewise landscape can be just as beautiful as it is safe and functional. But there is a lot more to landscape design than solely choosing plants. You need to plan for the worst-case scenario by installing firebreaks, irrigation systems, and a seasonal maintenance plan

If you already have a lot of trees, shrubs, and features in your landscape, there is plenty of opportunity for modification to make it more fire-safe. Follow these steps to install or adjust your firewise landscape.

Understand Defensible Space

View of a colorful spring rock flowerbed in the garden. Plants such as Helleborus orientalis, Grape hyacinths, Moss phlox, Orange trumpet vine, sweet alyssum and others grow in the flowerbed. The garden is decorated with large gray-beige stones.Create defensible space by reducing combustible fuels around your home.

Defensible space is the buffer area surrounding your home where you should reduce potential combustible fuels to help protect your house from catching fire. Combustible fuels are anything that can catch fire, from decks to outdoor furniture to grass to stacks of lumber and even RVs or cars. This buffer can be made of hardscape materials, ember-resistant ground cover, and sometimes, low-growing firewise plants.

There are several zones of defensible space:

  • Zone 0: This ember-resistant zone should not have any combustibles or plants within zero to five feet of all edges of a structure.
  • Zone 1: This is the intensive fuel reduction zone. Only fire-resistant plants should grow within 5 to 30 feet of buildings and decks.
  • Zone 2: Extending from 30 to 100 feet from structures, this zone should have reduced fire fuels and widely spaced trees.

The amount of defensible space needed around your home depends on your region and the recommendations or requirements of local officials. For example, the state of California has strict rules for defensible space. Bill 3074 was passed in 2023 to require the removal of ALL flammable material within five feet of any structure. This designated “Zone 0” is now being enforced by fire departments throughout the state of California. 

Remember, defensible space is designed to act as a barrier to fire and to slow the spread of wildfire toward a structure. It may seem constraining to keep plants far from your house, but the concept is designed with safety in mind. Defensible space can still be beautiful. For example, decorative rock is attractive, easy to maintain, and non-flammable. In some cases, succulent plants like agave and cacti are also acceptable. 

Remove Combustible Materials

Close-up of collecting fallen leaves in an autumn garden. The gardener uses a large garden steel rake. The gardener is wearing brown pants and black sneakers. Dry fallen maple leaves lie on the green lawn.Remove flammable materials within 5 feet of the home.

The first actionable step to fireproof your home landscape is to remove combustible materials. Anything flammable near your home can pose a major risk if wildfires break out in your area. Even if a fire isn’t right by your property line, wind can blow wildfire embers as far as 5 miles from the active burning fire. Research from the U.S. Forest Service shows that up to 60% of home ignitions come from air-borne embers flying through the wind and landing on flammable objects or flammable roofs

The type and amount of combustible materials near your home directly correlate to your risk of fire. Begin by removing everything flammable in Zone 0, within five feet of your house:

  • Uproot and transplant any plants growing less than five feet from structures, including exterior walls, decks, and RVs.
  • Remove any firewood or lumber stacks from near the house. Firewood should be stored 100+ feet from your home, outside of the defensible space.
  • Rake up and remove leaves, twigs, straw, bark mulch, and any other plant litter. 
  • Cut all grass (especially tall grass) near the structure and cover it with inorganic mulch.
  • Install non-combustible materials like gravel mulch, flagstone, boulders, hardscape, cement, paved paths, or walkways.
  • Look up! Any tree branches touching the roof or growing within 15 feet of the chimney should also be removed.

Some state resources allow low-growing succulent and fire-resistant plants to be grown right up next to a structure. But if your region is particularly fire-prone, it’s best to spread decorative gravel or stone around the entire perennial of your house in a five-foot-wide band.

Next, you’ll want to reduce combustible materials in zone 1 (5 to 30 feet from the house) and zone 2 (30 to 100 feet). These areas are still part of your home’s survivable space, but they allow for more vegetation than the barren zone 0. 

Recommended prevention activities include:

  • Remove any stressed, diseased, or dying plants. Their dead leaves and branches can easily catch flame.
  • Plant low-growing, moisture-retaining ground cover like evergreen grasses or creeping thyme.
  • Thin all shrubs and trees to at least 10 feet between each plant. Measure from the farthest branch of one plant to the nearest branch of the next.
  • Increase the spacing of shrubs and trees if they are on a slope toward your home.
  • Remove any debris, twigs, or leaves from underneath trees.
  • Extend pruning and dead plant removal along access roads.
  • Propane tanks should be at least 30 feet from structures, and all flammable vegetation should be removed within 10 feet of the tank. Consider placing it on concrete or gravel.

Prune Trees to Remove Ladder Fuels

Close-up of a gardener's hands pruning the branches of a fruit tree in a sunny garden using blue pruning shears. The gardener is wearing a checkered purple shirt.Analyze tree types, spacing, and branches to reduce fire risk.

Most wildfires occur in heavily vegetated and forested areas. Some trees, like junipers and pines, are especially prone to fire. Others, like live oaks and Japanese maples, are more resistant to fire. Before you start removing or planting trees, follow these steps.

Identify the trees growing on your property and analyze their growth:

  • Are the trees evergreen or deciduous (drop their leaves)? Deciduous trees are generally more firewise.
  • Do the trees have a lot of spa, resin, or volatile oils? Eucalyptus, cypress, pine, and spruce are highly flammable. 
  • How far apart are the trees? Densely planted trees are more dangerous. The crowns of trees should be at least 10-15 feet apart. 
  • Do they have a lot of low-hanging branches or twigs near the ground? These are potential ladder fuels.

Ladder fuels are vegetative materials that spread fire from low-growing areas like grass up into taller areas like tree canopies. This creates a dangerous vertical line of flammable materials that lead to crown fires. Statistically speaking, crown fires are the most destructive of all wildfires. They move from tree top to tree top and rapidly spread through the landscape.

Unless you are well-acquainted with a chainsaw, it’s best to hire a professional arborist to prune your trees, especially if there are large, thick branches near your home. If your trees only have smaller diameter branches and twigs, you can remove ladder fuels yourself with a ladder or step stool, sharp loppers, gloves, and a tarp.

To properly prune away ladder fuels from moderately sized saplings and mature trees:

  • Prune conifers and hardwoods in the fall or winter.
  • First, lay out a tarp near the tree.
  • Place all prunings on a tarp so you can easily drag them away.
  • Remove any weeds, suckers, or twiggy growth at the base of the tree.
  • Prune away any dead or dying branches.
  • If diseased limbs or leaves are present, be sure to sanitize your pruners between cuts.
  • Cut back all low-hanging branches and limbs.
  • Prune until the trunk is clear to 10 feet above the ground.
  • Make cuts as clean and straight as possible.
  • Do not paint wounds. This can actually seal in decay-causing organisms.
  • Never remove more than 50 percent of the live crown at a time.
  • Dispose of pruning remnants in the yard waste bin. Do not leave it in place!

While some trees are fire-resistant, no tree is fully fireproof! No matter what kind of trees you have, ladder fuel removal is integral to reducing potential fuels for fire. A ground or surface fire is much easier to control than a fire spreading up high in the canopy of trees.

Identify Attributes of Fire Safe vs. Fire Prone Plants

Close-up of blooming Hydrangea paniculata in an autumn garden near a white house. It features sturdy, upright stems adorned with large, conical flower clusters with small pink flowers. The foliage is dark green with yellowing areas, providing a beautiful backdrop to the vibrant blooms.Choose fire-safe plants with specific qualities for wildfire resilience.

A firewise landscape does not need to be barren or lacking in diversity. Now it’s time to consider the best species to plant in your zone 1 and 2 growing space. 

The key qualities of fire-safe plants include:

  • Moisture-retaining leaves
  • Deciduous (lose their leaves in winter)
  • Low-growing herbaceous plants
  • Tall single-trunk trees (easier to prune away ladder fuels)
  • Low amounts of resins, volatile oils, or flammable saps
  • Minimal accumulation of flammable debris, such as fallen branches and dead leaves
  • For trees, thick bark
  • Drought-tolerant (won’t shrivel without water)
  • Heat-tolerant (retains foliage through hot summers)

A firewise plant doesn’t have to meet all these qualities, but the more boxes it checks, the better. Drought and heat tolerance are particularly important because you need your plants to retain moisture in their tissues throughout wildfire season. If the plant shrivels in the heat or has a lot of dead leaves in peak summer, it is more prone to catching fire. On the other hand, if it is a native species that remains green and grows through long droughts, it won’t be as susceptible to igniting from wind-blown embers.

Another consideration is the growth habit of the shrub and the accumulation of debris near the base of a plant. Some shrubs, like creosote and coyote brush, grow very openly and messy, creating a lot of fallen twigs and brush at their base. This means a lot more maintenance on your part or the risk of more ladder fuels accumulating in the yard.

Tall exotic grasses pose similar risks because the outer and lower leaves tend to die back midsummer, creating a drapery of brown foliage, which is essentially a fire starter in a bundle! Now that we’ve covered the basic considerations of fire-safe versus fire-prone plants, we’ll dig into specific plant species below. Here’s a nice summary of firewise plant qualities:

Fire Safe vs Flammable Plant Attributes

Decreased Flammability (Firewise) High Risk for Flammability (Not Recommended for Fire-Prone Landscapes)
Low volatile oil or resin content High amounts of resins, saps, or oils
High moisture content Low moisture content
Compact growth Open or messy form
Herbaceous green stems or strong trunks Twiggy fine wood stems
Tidy growth Accumulate debris at the base
Green stems throughout the season Susceptible to dead leaves and limbs during drought
Drought tolerant High water requirements

Choose Less Flammable Herbaceous Perennials & Shrubs

Close-up of a flowering Yarrow plant in a sunny garden against a blurred green background. It features fern-like, aromatic foliage comprised of finely divided, feathery leaves arranged in an alternating pattern along slender stems. Yarrow produces flat-topped clusters of small, daisy-like flowers in shades of white.Plant fire-safe shrubs 5-10 feet from home for floral beauty.

Add some floral beauty and vibrant shrubbery to your firewise landscape design! These plants are considered safe to plant 5-10+ feet away from your home. Here are some of the most popular species for gorgeous firewise landscaping:

Low-Flammability Flowers and Ground Covers

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
  • Bluebells of Scotland (Campanula rotundifolia)
  • Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
  • Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)
  • Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus)
  • Rockcress (Arabis spp.)
  • Hens N Chicks (Echeveria spp.)
  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
  • Geraniums (Geranium spp.)
  • Bearded Iris (Iris germanica)
  • Sage (Salvia spp.)
  • Stonecrop (Sedum spp.)
  • Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
  • Carnation (Dianthus spp.)

Low-Flammability Shrubs

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
  • Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spp.)
  • Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.)
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
  • Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)
  • Soapweed (Yucca glauca)
  • Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
  • Crabapple (Malus spp.)
  • Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.)
  • Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.)
  • Purple Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria)
  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
  • False Goat’s Beard (Astilbe spp.)

We cannot cover every possible firewise plant, but this list is an excellent place to start. If you want more suggestions, search your state forest service, local university extension service, or fire department website for firewise landscaping suggestions. 

Choose Fire-Resistant Trees

Close-up of Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) in a sunny garden. The Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is a deciduous tree renowned for its striking appearance and adaptability. It features a broad, spreading crown with delicate, bipinnately compound leaves comprised of numerous small leaflets arranged along thin branches. Honey locust produces inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers that give way to long, twisted pods containing sweet, edible pulp.Pick fire-resistant trees with high moisture, low resin, and deciduous leaves.

Firewise trees are species that do not readily ignite or produce lots of flammable fuel. They have a high moisture content and low amounts of resins or saps that might escalate a wildfire. In general, deciduous trees are more fire-resistant because their leaves are thinner and more moist than evergreen needles.

The deciduous leaves tend to shrivel in extreme heat rather than ignite in flames like evergreens often do. Evergreen trees are also problematic because they hold a lot of sap and resin in their branches and cones. The dense foliage of evergreen conifers spreads fire rapidly, and the fallen needles and cones accumulate in large quantities at the base of the tree.

In summary, the key qualities of fire-resistant trees are:

  • High moisture content
  • Low resin or sap content
  • Low volatile oils
  • Deciduous leaves (broadleaves fall in the autumn)
  • Thick bark
  • Minimal accumulation of ladder fuels (like dead leaves, fallen branches, or low twiggy growth)
  • Tall, single trunks

Popular tree options include:

  • Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
  • American Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
  • Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • American Wild Plum (Prunus americana)

Choose Fire Protection Ground Cover

Close-up of blooming lupine and Hydrangea paniculata in a garden with decorative rock mulch. Lupines are herbaceous perennial plants celebrated for their striking appearance and colorful spikes of pea-like flowers. They feature palmate leaves arranged in basal rosettes, with tall, erect stems rising from the center. The flowers, arranged in dense clusters along the stems, come in a pink color. Hydrangea paniculata features sturdy, upright stems adorned with large, conical flower clusters. The blooms start off creamy-white or greenish before transitioning to shades of pink.Opt for fire-resistant ground covers like stone pavers or decorative gravel.

A well-kept lawn is OK in some wildfire-susceptible regions. However, many turfgrasses are high maintenance and require a lot of water. The switch to lawn alternatives and hardscaping is common in drought-prone and fire-prone areas like California and Arizona.

Inorganic ground covers are a great option for zone 0 (within 5 feet of your home). These non-flammable soil covers inhibit fire spread close to structures while preventing erosion and mud. They can look very aesthetically pleasing and prevent weeds from growing close to your home’s exterior walls.

Fire-resistant impervious ground cover ideas include:

  • Stone pavers
  • Decorative gravel
  • Cement
  • Boulders
  • Crushed granite

These materials are safe because if a flying ember landed on them, it would not ignite. Additional ember-resistant firebreaks to integrate throughout your landscape include:

  • Walkways
  • Pathways
  • Stepping stones
  • Swimming pool
  • Patios
  • Stone retaining walls
  • Hardscaping

But we don’t want a completely concrete or rock-based landscape. Spreading plant ground covers are excellent for zone 1 (within 5-30 feet of your home). Low-growing and vining plants can be a functional and attractive way to add lushness to your firewise landscape. They are an effective barrier to wildfire spread because they conserve moisture close to the ground and don’t have much woody growth. 

The best firewise groundcovers are low-spreading plants that form a dense mat of roots that suppresses weeds and covers the soil. Ideally, they are drought tolerant and mowed or pruned once annually to prevent the accumulation of debris or leaf litter.

Attractive fire-resistant ground cover options include:

  • Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
  • Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
  • Stonecrop (Sedum spp.)
  • Catmint (Nepeta spp.)
  • Dead Nettles (Lamium spp.)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
  • Bugle Herb (Ajuga spp.)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
  • Compost mulch

Avoid Fire-Prone Landscape Plants

Close-up of Juniperus sabina in a garden bed. Juniperus sabina, commonly known as savin juniper, is a rugged and low-growing evergreen shrub. It features dense, spreading branches adorned with needle-like foliage arranged in whorls along the stems. The foliage is a rich green color, with a slightly blue-green hue.Avoid highly flammable plants like juniper, eucalyptus, and pine trees.

While some plants can be grown farther from your house or regularly pruned to make them safer, other species should be outright removed and avoided in a firewise landscape design.

These plants are highly flammable and should not be planted in a firewise landscape:

  • Juniper (Juniperus spp.)
  • Leyland Cypress (Cuprocyparis leylandii)
  • Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
  • Arborvitae (Thuja spp.)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus)
  • Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)
  • Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius)
  • Bamboo (Bambusoideae)
  • Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Pine Trees (Pinus spp.)
  • Acacia (Acacia spp.)

If you must remove one of these trees or shrubs, you can always relocate it to an area more than 100 feet from your home or use the remnants as compost in your garden.

Commit to Seasonal Maintenance (Pruning, Thinning, and Mowing)

Close-up of a gardener mowing a lawn with White clover (Trifolium repens) groundcover. A lawnmower is a mechanical device designed for cutting grass and maintaining laws, characterized by its compact, wheeled design and rotary cutting blade. White clover (Trifolium repens) is a low-growing perennial herbaceous plant known for its trifoliate leaves and compact growth habit. It forms dense mats of creeping stems adorned with clusters of small, white, ball-shaped flower heads. The leaves are trifoliate, with three small leaflets arranged in a clover-like pattern.Maintain firewise landscape by raking leaves, thinning, and regular pruning.

The final step to a super safe and beautiful firewise landscape design is maintenance. You need to have a plan for maintaining the landscape once or twice per year.

Remember to:

  • Rake up deciduous leaves and compost them.
  • Thin plants and trees to 5-10 feet between them. Don’t let plants grow too densely.
  • Keep turf grasses and groundcovers mowed to under 2-3”.
  • Prune back herbaceous perennials at the end of the season so no dead leaves accumulate at their base.
  • Regularly check for signs of diseases and remove dead or dying branches.

Final Thoughts

Wildfires are inevitable and sometimes a natural part of the forest ecosystem. However, losing your home to a wildfire is preventable. Risk mitigation is key to protecting houses and structures from flames. Almost all of the plant selections and maintenance requirements go back to reducing flammable fuels. 

From low-hanging branches to dead grass to sap-filled cones, anything that can easily catch flame should be kept as far from your house as possible in a firewise landscape design. Remember to armor your zone 0 (within 5 feet of your house) with ember-resistant ground cover like stone, gravel, or crushed granite.

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