Landscaping with fire in mind

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— With reports of the snowpack being quite low this year, chances of an active fire season this summer in Routt County are quite high.

In a high-intensity fire, everything will burn, but there are some measures you can take to make your landscaping safer.

Two primary factors determine your home's ability to survive a wildfire: your roofing material and the quality of the defensible space surrounding it. Defensible space is categorized as Zone 1, 2 and 3. Zone 1 refers to the space 15 feet around your home measured from the outside edge of your eaves and any attached structures such as decks. Zone 2 depends upon the slope of the ground where your home is built but typically extends 75 to 125 feet out. Zone 3 extends from the edge of Zone 2 to your property boundaries.

A plant's moisture content is the single-most important factor governing its volatility. The exception is conifers, which tend to be flammable because of their oil and pitch content, regardless of water content. The oils in oak brush and sagebrush also burn readily. It's how and where you plant that are generally more important than what you plant.

Grasses in Zone 1 should be mowed to at least 8 inches. They ignite easily and burn rapidly. A good native grass mix includes equal parts Arizona fescue, western wheatgrass, streambank wheatgrass, Indian ricegrass and blue grama. Non-native grasses that are best in fire zones include Canada bluegrass and Sheep fescue.

As an alternative to grass, consider ground cover plants. They break up the monotony of grass while enhancing the beauty of your landscape. Good choices for the Steamboat Springs area include wooly yarrow, rosy pussytoes, basket of gold, snow-in-summer, thyme, sedums and myrtle.

For a soft, natural look to your landscaping, consider widely separated patches of wildflowers. Some excellent choices for our mountain community include columbine, purple coneflower, blanket flower, scarlet gilia, native beebalm, potentilla and golden banner.

Shrubs concern firefighters because of the woody material in their stems and branches. They are a "ladder fuel," meaning they can help a relatively easy-to-control ground fire leap into tree crowns. Crown fires are very hard, sometimes impossible, to control. To reduce the fire-spreading potential of shrubs, plant widely separated, low-growing, nonresinous varieties in your defensible area. Good "fire-wise" shrubs to consider include kinnikinnick, redtwig dogwood, mountain mahogany, lilac, shrubby cinquefoil and snowberry.

If your area receives enough moisture to grow them, plant deciduous trees such as aspen or cottonwood. They generally do not burn well, even when planted in clumps. Be sure to remove dead leaves each fall as they can be a fire hazard. As trees grow, prune branches to a height of 10 feet above the ground. Other fire-wise trees that grow in Routt County include wasatch maple, green ash, and peachleaf willow.

More information about protecting your home with fire-wise landscaping is available on the cooperative extension Web site: www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt or at www.firewise.org

Deb Babcock is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or

e-mail your comments to: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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