The La Tuna Canyon fire in the first week of September, which burned over 7,000 acres, was the largest wildfire in the history of Los Angeles. Because of maintaining fire-defensible space around their homes, which number around 750, the residents of La Tuna Canyon did not suffer property damage, although a few homes and structures in adjacent Tujunga Canyon were damaged or destroyed.
In the wake of this record conflagration, it makes sense to ask yourself: Am I living in a defensible space?
In 1972, Oscar Newmark, an architect and city planner, wrote “Defensible Space,” a book that associated the architecture and layout of housing developments with the likelihood of crime visiting those developments. According to Newmark, a simple example of this was the fact that crime in any given neighborhood was more likely to occur in a high rise apartment building than in a building of only a few floors.
The reason for this disparity had to do with the feeling of control experienced by residents over their immediate environment. The less control they felt over their environment, the more likely criminals were to take control of it. Residents of a large building were likely to have less familiarity with their environment or surrounding space, feel less responsibility for it, and have a diminished sense of ownership regarding it, compared to residents of a small building. Thus, in a small building, residents would question the presence of an unfamiliar visitor or loiterer whereas, in a large building, there would be so many unfamiliar faces that they would simply be ignored.
Interestingly enough, somewhere along the way, this concept of defensible space was picked up by firefighters and fire safety policy makers. What do crime-safe and fire-safe environments have in common? In both cases, the ability or desire of residents to prevent intrusions, whether of undesireable people or unwanted flames, is dependent on their ability to proactively control the likelihood of such intrusions.
Here’s the interesting part of the theory: you might think that people who lived in an environment that was conducive to crime would be especially alert to criminal activity in the neighborhood or that people who lived on a property where lack of brush clearance could result in their house burning down would be on high alert regarding wildfire possibilities. And yet just the opposite is true. The act of caring about and securing your surroundings gives you a heightened sense of awareness and alertness regarding possible threats to your safety.
For residents of California who live in wildfire areas, legally mandated defensible space — the area around a structure which must meet certain brush clearance and landscape or firescape specifications — was expanded in 2005 from 30 to 100 feet. In Los Angeles County, the area of defensible space, which is legally enforceable, has grown to 200 feet in hazardous areas.
Defensible space does not need to be devoid of plants. Instead, plants need to be spaced at certain distances and kept at certain heights, with all dry interior growth pruned out, and lower growth on tall shrubs and trees eliminated. Within your defensible space, shrubs and trees, in the words of native plant expert Lili Singer, “should be turned into lollipops.” All dry vegetation, such as dead palm fronds, should be removed as well as highly combustible plants, such as junipers, that are in close proximity to structures. New plantings should be confined to California natives, especially those, according to Singer “with thick bark or thick, leathery leaves” or other chaparral compatible selections. Detailed defensible space plant specifications may be found at readyforwildfire.org (state regulations) and at fire.lacounty.gov (county regulations).
You can maintain your defensible space yourself or, if it’s too much of a chore, you will have to pay someone to do it for you. Nowadays, if you want to live close to nature, it turns out, you will be charged extra for that privilege. At Theodore Payne Foundation, for example, I was informed by Singer — who inspired this column as director of special projects and adult education for the Foundation — that it costs $10,000 a year for brush clearance around Theodore Payne’s native plant center and nursery in La Tuna Canyon.
“It’s important to understand,” Singer stated, “that fire is an essential element of the chaparral ecosystem that exists in the canyons and surrounding slopes throughout Los Angeles. The La Tuna Canyon fire, which happened on its own and not by arson, was not an aberration but a confirmation of the fact that chaparral wildfires should be expected every 30 to 130 years. The last wildfire in this area happened 62 years ago, in 1955, so September’s fire was not really a surprise. Keep in mind that the seeds of native plants such as manzanita (Arctostphylos spp.), ceanothus, and Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) require fire to germinate. There are also native bulbs whose growth depends on fire. In addition, wildflower seeds that were hidden under taller vegetation for many years will be exposed to light and chemicals in the seeds that affect germination have been released. These wildflwoer seeds are now primed to sprout and so, on account of the fire, we should be in for quite a show.”
Ironically, perhaps, the heavy rain we experienced this winter may have contributed to the intensity of the blaze. The spurt of growth observed on large chaparral shrubs may have killed undergrowth by depriving it of light or induced desiccation of interior growth on those same shrubs. Proliferation of dry or dead growth of this kind would have helped whip the blaze into an inferno.
Your goal is to prevent a so-caller ladder effect from developing where low growing vegetation is in close proximity to taller plants so that when the lower story catches fire it quickly engulfs the taller vegetation above.
Singer has organized a “La Tuna Canyon Regeneration” series of informative talks and workshops regarding firescaping and wildfire preparedness, free of charge. The remaining presentations will take place between November 4 and December 16 at 10459 Tuxford Street in Sun Valley. For details, visit theodorepayne.org.
If, in maintaining your defensible space, you wish to avoid noisy gas powered brush clearance machines sending up clouds of burnt fuel around your property, you can choose from several goat grazing services. One local service, called Fire Grazers Inc., may be reached at goatsrock.com or by calling (310) 465-9727. You must have at least 5 acres of grazeable brush, however, to be eligible for Fire Grazers’ goat service. If your property is not that big, you may wish to get together with your neighbors to satisfy the minimum acreage requirement for goat service.
Tip of the Week: The concept of defensible space may be applied to gardens in general. Just as criminals and fires are unwanted intruders where private property is concerned, weeds and insect pests are unwanted intruders in the garden. In all cases, constant surveillance is necessary to keep out undesirable elements. Someone once said that “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow,” and so just being there may have beneficial effects.
Practically speaking, a well kept garden should be visited daily by its custodian in order to keep it under control. Weeds and insect pests will never become a problem because they will be spotted and manually uprooted or squashed before they can gain a foothold. If a plant is continually being victimized by insect pests and/or disease, it is getting too much sun or shade and its guardian will move it to another location.
Maintaining a three inch layer of mulch at all times is the best recommendation for protecting defensible garden space. Mulch denies weed seeds a chance to germinate. It also minimizes watering. Plant diseases and insect pest infestations are nearly always the result of too much water, whether it settles in the soil or lingers on stems, leaves, or flowers.
One caveat: in wildfire prone areas, mulch, since it is highly combustible, should be raked away during wildfire season.