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The Latest Dirt - July 2022

Living in Wildfire Country: Summertime Fireworks

By Marilyn Saarni

At this time of the year, those of us living in Wildfire Country wake up at night and listen to booming fireworks and mentally check our evacuation preparations (“Go-bag ready? Should I update our property inventory with new video? All cats and dogs are inside and their crates and food by the door—check. Car tank full–check.”) Of course, we then go through the many tasks for firescape maintenance (“That dratted pine tree next door probably has filled the gutters again. Glad I have cleared all debris within 30 feet and trimmed the raggedy sedges.”). And we don’t get much sleep. Fireworks start destructive wildfires every year, so the fear of fireworks in our neighborhoods will start a fire is realistic. And certainly, neighbors who have pets or suffer from PTSD (a hardship for many of our veterans) dread this time of the year because of the fireworks. At writing of this article (7/5/22), fireworks have already started four fires, though they were quickly controlled through hypervigilant action of our firefighters.

Contra Costa County, in response to the worries expressed by ConFire and city fire department staff, has introduced a hotline to report fireworks: (833) 885-2021. This number is good for all locations; your call will be directed to the correct jurisdiction for response. Reporting even with less information than is optimal (they do love photographs!) is useful. They want to build data to find recurring hot spots. Fireworks are illegal EVERYWHERE in Contra Costa County. Add this phone number to your cell’s contacts and use it. Reporting can be anonymous. In addition, ConFire asks all Contra Costa County residents to report fireworks sales to 1-866-50-ARSON. “Residents can leave a recorded message about fireworks sales, or any fire-related criminal activity in English or Spanish. Tips can be anonymous, but all tips are treated confidentially. Fire investigators sometimes need additional information, so inclusion of name and phone number is encouraged.”

Summer firescaping thoughts. This year’s summer is especially trying. The drought has killed or harmed many plants in our gardens, even those that normally thrive in high temperatures. It hasn’t been that hot, but the soil moisture, and hence our vegetation moisture, is super-low. If your lawn is scrubby, it’s okay. Some turfs can be rehabilitated with the fall rains. You may be considering whether to replace your lawn but consider that it does make a great fire break and cools the soil and acts as a rain sponge. Within the 30-foot zone you can’t easily add shrubs or trees (you can, but you have to install vegetation gaps that act as fuel breaks, no touching canopies, and of course only firesafe plant choices). What we don’t want to see is expansive gravel beds covering entire front yards, or Astroturf. These harm soil organisms and expand the heat island effect. New slower-growing, less (or no)-fertilizer-use, drought-resistant turfs are now on the market, in case you want lawn both for its functional use and as a firescaping fuel break. Consider investigating changing over to these new turfs. Or perhaps using lawn more strategically (and in lesser amounts).

Summer Tasks. Despite the drought, keep vegetation inside your Zone 1 (<30 feet of structures) hydrated, or cut to the ground if the plants are done for the year. If you haven’t already, you can mulch with compost in this zone to protect soil moisture.

Clear all dead or dying vegetation within 100 feet of your structures. Pay special attention to the sides of your evacuation routes—paths from your home’s exit points and driveway. No flammable plants should line these routes. Your driveway should be cleared at least 5 feet (better 10 feet) on each side, visually and of flammable materials. You want firefighters to feel safe to approach your home to defend it—and you want to be able to get into your car and exit safely if embers are flowing around you in gusts. (Reminder: fill your gas tanks frequently and park with your car pointing out for a hasty evacuation.)

Be sure to keep your trees well-hydrated. All trees need supplementary water this summer; groundwater tables have dropped so much that even trees in natural riparian zones are dying in our wildlands. Your big trees are an investment you want to protect.

Keep an eye on underlying debris. Within 30 feet of your home, you’ll want to rake, sweep or blow clear all dead leaves. Don’t use a blower on soil or mulch. You can lay down a layer of cobble or larger pebbles—I find ¾” or larger suffices to stay put when using a blower—to protect the underlying soil and root zone. This is a good strategy if you are keeping a tree within Zone 1, since it preserves moisture, reduces maintenance effort and acts as a deterrent to embers. It doesn’t build up soil health, but you can work on that during late fall and winter, when the wildfire threat ebbs. In Zone 2 (30-100 feet of structures) you can allow 2” of leaf debris to build up—which is particularly important for our live oak trees.

(I now recommend electric blowers as an essential tool for wildfire country gardens. Luckily, they are far quieter than their gas-guzzling, stinking cousins. They are at no risk of generating sparks either. Nothing like having to clear Zone 0 (<5 feet from structures) every other day to demonstrate how a blower eases the effort, though its use should be restricted to hard surfaces. Such a maintenance task skipped because it’s too much effort increases risk of ember combustion.)

If you already have dying and dead trees, or trees that have proven impossible to maintain safely and shower risky debris all over your and your neighbors’ homes (looking at you, Monterey pine tree owners!!!), call your favorite arborist now to set up a time to remove these dangerous trees. By mid-August most nesting has ceased, and the harmful impact of removing the large trees that provide so much ecosystem value will be less. In anticipation of shade loss, consider trees that might serve well to replace your dead trees—but don’t plant until after it cools down, as well as the soil at the site where the tree is removed. Remember, you can cluster trees, but you must preserve gaps between mature tree canopies and keep 10’ clearance of structures. It is likely you’ll need to plan fewer trees, smaller trees, narrower trees* and certainly less flammable trees. Local jurisdictions are beginning to ban several plants (entire genera!), so you’ll want to check on that too. And you’ll need to avoid planting trees near power lines or flammable fences or structures. Allow time to consider all the factors of planting and siting new trees.

On the happy side, I hope you’re seeing blooms and thriving plants where you have already started your firescaping efforts. Those lower-growing salvias are so happy right now, Chaste trees’ blue spires are rumbling with their bee and butterfly mobs, and those low firesafe groundcovers of elfin thyme, sedums, Lippia, Falkia repens (‘Little Ears’) too are quietly humming with bees and butterflies visiting the tiny flowers. And firesafe fruit trees are getting heavy with this year’s goodies. While firescaping changes how we plan and maintain our gardens, we have an abundance of plants to enjoy, and gorgeous gardens to browse.

Photo by Marilyn Saarni. Well-dusted bumble bee on a Morea iris (Dietes iridioides) bloom.
Photo by Marilyn Saarni. Well-dusted bumble bee on a Morea iris (Dietes iridioides) bloom.