Gardening in a Wildfire-Prone Area

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman

In a wildfire nine years ago here in the Colorado Rockies, our stacked firewood exploded and took with it the tinder-dry, pioneer-era outbuilding which was our gardening shed. (Not smart — we since learned to stack winter wood 30 or more feet away from buildings and trees.) It didn’t get the gardens, as they were wet enough to deflect this particular fire. We have worked to increase soil moisture in the gardens over the years and slightly sloped the contoured, terraced beds back into the mountainside for water catchment. The wind likely shifted, too, blowing the fire elsewhere. The moisture-retaining gardens helped protect the house in this case.

Surrounding the gardens — and built structures — with gravel mulches (no shredded bark or pine needles), flagstone, bricks, sand, least-flammable plants, or grass mowed to no higher than 4 inches can also help. Concrete pads work, too, though the cement industry has a big carbon footprint. Also, water can soak into the earth beneath gravel and plants and around flagstone. On concrete it runs off; some dry-area gardeners have planted one or more saplings in a basin-shaped hole to catch the runoff from impermeable aprons.

Cal fire recommends specific strategies for creating defensible space up to 100 feet around the home.

Colorado has defensible space recommendations specific to the Rockies, which include vegetable gardens near the house. The amount and type of defensible space varies by steepness of slope, land forms, and vegetation, both wild and gardened. Those of us who live on steep slopes which face south or southwest and/or have “chimneys” — steep narrow drainages — have to take particular care.

Here in the Colorado mountains, we’ve learned that if you have a beloved tree, stand of trees, or garden near the house, you can consider them part of your house and mitigate 30 to 100 feet out from them. In all states, the safest plants have minimum sap and little or no resin, oils, or waxes that could ignite or hold a flame. Check out the flammability of any tree you want to protect — look online, ask your extension office or the local fire department. Each state also has a list of least flammable plants; check the internet for your state’s fire-wise plant materials and fire-resistant landscaping. Water-holding succulents are popular. Keep flammable weeds, such as dead and dry cheatgrass, as well as flammable, dried-out garden/landscape plants, under control.

And in some circumstances — the winds are just right, the topography is fire-conducive, the day is a “red flag day” — high temps, humidity in the single digits, drought conditions — the gardens may burn. Half our orchard burned, our friends lost houses, greenhouses, sheds, barns, gardens. Mountainsides burned.

Gardeners often want to get right back to work and rebuild the garden, the landscape. We found to our surprise that we couldn’t push ourselves as we had before: just when we thought we were doing great, we’d crash into exhaustion. We learned that’s part of it all. Talking with neighbors helped the most, as we were all going through the same thing; it did eventually subside.

There were upsides: we were alive and the impacted communities have survived. The surrounding community offered generous help. We had to learn to accept some. Not easy for do-it-yourselfers. The fire was good for community. It allowed people to come unstuck from old ways, re-designing more sustainable landscapes and gardens, learning news ways with each other.

Pam Sherman gardens with her husband at 8300 feet in the Colorado Front Range Rocky Mountains on part of an old pioneer farm. She can be reached

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