Firescape your home – before it’s too late
Recent, destructive, wildland fires in the Western Cape have highlighted, as never before, the need for homeowners to take simple, yet carefully planned measures to protect their living environment from the threat of unwanted wildfire.
Homes of every kind, from mansions to townhouses, farmhouses and informal settlements, are increasingly encroaching on natural vegetation and the highly inflammable invasive species in and around it. As a result, wildfires are again wreaking havoc on private property, threatening lives, destroying homes and costing taxpayers millions to extinguish them.
“Much of this loss can be prevented with careful planning,” says Kishugu co-founder, Chris de Bruno Austin, one of South Africa’s leading experts in wildfire management and prevention.
In South Africa, Kishugu is best known for managing the South African Governments’ Working on Fire Programme (WOF), that deploys more than 5,000 trained wildfire firefighters to suppress wildfires across the country.
After the fire in January 2000, the most devastating fire recorded in the Cape Peninsula, researchers and firefighting agencies have warned homeowners that houses near areas of woody invasive vegetation – the so-called Urban-Wildland Interface – are particularly vulnerable to runaway fires. This message has been reiterated after each fire that has broken out in the Western Cape during every Summer fire season.
It is vital to protect your home and suburb against wild fires. Being “fire wise” should be a priority.
Building FireWise Communities is a concept originally developed in the United States. It has since been adapted and implemented in South Africa.
“The FireWise approach emphasises the responsibility communities have in designing a safe community. It also promotes effective emergency response, individual responsibility for safer home construction and design, landscaping and maintenance,” says FireWise expert, Val Charlton, manager of the Kishugu Non-Profit Company (NPC).
Kishugu NPC recently successfully completed the Fynbos Fire Project to study the impact of wildfire on the fynbos biome. The handbook produced, titled, A Guide to Integrated Fire Management, is fast becoming the world standard.
Bearing in mind that climate change is making the Cape hotter and drier and, therefore, more conducive to unwanted wild fire, the question is: “When a wildfire comes through your neighbourhood, could your home survive on its own?”
By firescaping your home’s ignition zone – the 10-meter area surrounding your house – you can substantially reduce the risk of your property becoming fuel for fire. Firescaping involves landscaping in ways that will reduce the probability of fire catching and spreading through the “firescaped” area.
So, what can you do to make your garden more resistant to fire?
It is important to have a survivable space around your infrastructure. “Creating a ‘survivable space’ means modifying your property’s layout, hard-landscaping materials and plantings to reduce the risk of your home catching alight during a wildfire,” says Charlton.
The size of the survivable space is often expressed as a distance extending outwards from the home and outbuildings. The distance varies, depending upon the type of natural vegetation growing near the home. If this space encroaches into your neighbours’ properties, then it makes sense to work together and create a joint survivable space and hazard reduction plan.
You can create a survivable space by removing all flammable plants within the survivable area, especially invasive plants such as wattle, pine and gum, as well as exotics, such as bottlebrushes, melaleucas and conifers. These plants burn hotter and fiercer than indigenous fynbos. Remove shrubs and perennials beneath larger trees or near large shrubs, as these plants provide a “fire ladder” for flames to “climb” upwards to larger plants – and, from there, to the roof of your home.
Carry out regular, common sense maintenance checks. Remove dead and decaying wood, and fallen and dead branches. Clear all fuel material debris from around the base of trees. You should also prune away tree branches that overhang the house.
Create planting zones
A firescaped property comprises three planting zones:
The patio or low resistance area:
This is the zone adjacent to the house. It should consist of well-irrigated, fire resistant, low-growing ground-covers and lawn, together with non-flammable hard-landscaping, such as flagstone walks, brick patios, stone retaining walls, gravel and inorganic mulches. Fire resistant small shrubs can also be planted here. Avoid planting trees, climbers and medium or large shrubs directly up against buildings. Avoid timber decking, wooden pergolas and archways, and organic mulches.
The garden or medium resistance zone:
Create island beds* three to five meters apart, surrounded by lawn, paving or gravel. Choose fire-resistant trees and shrubs, but make sure they do not touch each other or create a fire-ladder effect.
Perimeter or buffer zone:
Plant low-growing, fleshy-leaved ground-covers, hedging plants, large aloes and isolated forest trees that are fire-resistant and re-sprout when damaged by fire. Never use flammable fencing materials.
“By taking these easy to implement, precautionary steps, homeowners can drastically reduce the threat that unwanted wild fire poses to their lives, the lives of their families and their homes,” says de Bruno Austin.
*An island bed is a freestanding garden, usually surrounded by grass, that can be viewed from all sides.
Plants that minimize the risk of fire
Although no plant is fireproof, many plants have features that minimise the extent to which they contribute to the spread of veld fires. Choose from a range of firewise indigenous plants including:
Ground covers for sunny areas:
Aloe brevifolia, arctotis, dymondia, gazania, Hermannia saccifera, Agathosma ovata “Kluitjieskraal” and vygies.
Ground covers for shady areas:
Plectranthus verticillatus, P. neochilus and P. ciliates.
Tulbaghia, agapanthus and watsonia.
Agathosma serpyllacea, Phylica ericoides, Felicia, Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa), scabiosa, and Athanasia dentata.
Shrubs and trees for island beds:
Leucadendron salignum, L. conocarpodendron, Protea nitida, P. cynaroides, Cape thatching reed (Elegia tectorum), Erica spp., Salvia spp., wild malva (Pelargonium cucullatum), Felicia echinata, fan aloe, coastal silver oak, wild olive and wild peach.
Krantz aloe, tick berry (Chrysanthemoides monilifera), dune crowberry (Searsia crenata) and camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus).
Forest trees for perimeter:
Wild almond (Brabejum stellatifolium), rooiels (Cunonia capensis), tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida), Cape holly (Ilex mitis) and Cape beech (Rapanaea melanophloeos).
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