Deb Babcock: Protect your home from wildfires

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

At a glance

Help protect your home from wildfire by considering these factors when planning landscaping near your home:

■ Plants near your home should be more widely spaced and lower growing than those farther away.

■ Avoid large masses of plants. Instead, plant in small, irregular clusters or islands.

■ Use rock, gravel and stepping stone pathways to break up the continuity of vegetation.

■ Install a diversity of plant species for better health of your plants.

■ Use mulches to conserve moisture and reduce weeds.

■ Mow grasses close to your home to a maximum of 8 inches or consider ground cover plants instead of grass.

■ Eliminate fire ladders that form a continuous fuel supply from the ground up into a tree.

■ Regularly clean up leaves and plant litter.

■ Prune vegetation near the house to less than 18 inches high.

■ Thin the crowns of clustered trees and those that overhang your roof.

Recent restrictions on agricultural burns in the Yampa Valley have a lot of us thinking about the potentially hazardous season ahead of us because lack of moisture from this winter’s low amount of snowfall. If your home is surrounded by lots of flammable vegetation, take steps to mitigate fire damage.

Two primary factors determine your home’s ability to survive a wildfire: your roofing material and the quality of the defensible space surrounding it.

Your roof should be made of fire-resistant or noncombustible materials such as Class A asphalt shingles, slate or clay tile, metal, cement and concrete products, or terra-cotta tiles.

The defensible space surrounding your home is categorized in three zones. Zone 1 refers to the space 30 feet around your home, Zone 2 typically extends 75 to 125 feet out, and Zone 3 extends beyond that to your property line.

Zone 1 should be your most well-irrigated area and contain plants with low flammability. This area also should provide enough space for fire-fighting equipment in case of an emergency. Grasses in Zone 1 should be mowed to at least 8 inches as they ignite easily and burn rapidly. As an alternative to grass, consider ground cover plants. They break up the monotony of grass while enhancing the beauty of your landscape. Good ground cover 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.

Zone 2 plantings also should contain low-flammability plants, and some irrigation should extend into this zone. Zone 3 plants should contain widely spaced trees with low-flammability shrubs and vegetation that is pruned and cleaned up regularly.

A plant’s moisture content determines how fiercely it will burn. 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.

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 shrubs to consider include kinnikinnick, red twig dogwood, mountain mahogany, lilac, shrubby cinquefoil and snowberry.

If your yard 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.

Under the current restrictions, campfires and smoking outdoors are banned except in developed recreation sites or where there is at least a 3-foot circle of barren or cleared ground. There also are restrictions on the operation of equipment such as chain saws and welding torches. Please help keep our valley safe by being careful with fire and following the restrictions put in place by the county.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension office in Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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