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Firescape for Edhat
updated: Nov 21, 2008, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Firescape for Edhat
by Billy Goodnick

I had another article in the works for this week, but it would be a waste of space not to give you some needed information about fire safety. There are links at the end with more resources.

Santa Barbara is the home of what I'm told was the first "firescape" garden in the world. If you live in a fire prone area and were fortunate enough to come out unscathed by the flames of either the Tea Fire or any of the conflagrations of the last few decades, consider yourself lucky, but not immune. My sincere hope is that this article will increase your odds if the next one is in your neighborhood.

It seems that everyone I've spoken with since Thursday knows someone immediately affected by the Tea Fire. Of my three friends who live right in the path of the fire, two cannot explain why their houses were spared when others immediately around them lost everything.
The third, who is also a design client and recent widower of a very unique woman - no, she was a force of nature - lost everything.

I have no way of imagining what it is like to return to your property after days of wondering and find devastation. The house itself, your pictures, books, clothes, the drawings your kids brought home from school, the fruit trees that put sweet summer delights on your breakfast table turned to undifferentiated masses of ash. So much of who we are centers on our physical place in the universe. We define ourselves by our place of birth, where we grew up and went to school, the places we've traveled. If home is where the heart is, many hearts have been torn and battered in recent days. The enormity of picking up and starting again will affect everyone differently. Some will literally dust themselves off, take a deep breath and say "time to move on." For others, the scars may never be erased.

At the intersection of Stanwood Drive and Mountain Drive sits 1.7 acres of City of Santa Barbara-owned land, home of the Firescape Demonstration Garden. The tragic 1977 Sycamore Fire, which burned 850 acres and 200 homes, was the impetus for this outdoor educational resource. Local horticulturists, landscape architects and Fire Department staff designed the mini-park in 1985 to help residents in Santa Barbara's high fire areas design gardens that enhance their property while providing defensible space to protect their home.

In 2007, Owen Dell, one of the original designers, and I reworked the garden. We also focused four segments for our Garden Wise Guys TV show on the subject of fire-safe landscaping.
Bulbine Rock
Though fire safety is a deeply serious subject, we managed to have a little fun along the way. I thought I knew a lot about designing landscapes in high-fire areas, but working with Owen was like going to grad school.

The fundamental lesson of the Firescape Demonstration Garden is that when fire approaches your property, a strategically designed, properly cared for landscape is your best defense to keep the flames from destroying your home. It's all about taking the energy out of the raging monster and reducing the vegetative fuel that feeds the flames.

In the interest of page space, I'll skip over the specific design principles, because part of my intent is to get you to visit the garden - right across the street from Fire Station No. 7, at 2411 Stanwood Drive - and experience it for yourself. There you'll find an information kiosk, brochures and well-labeled specimens to help you find the best plants for your own garden. Most everything there is low water-using and the plants are spaced to allow them to mature without colliding and creating excessive maintenance. Owen and I also worked really hard to make sure it was beautiful and give visitors some fresh landscaping ideas.

In a nutshell, the objective is to break the outermost masses of vegetation into an archipelago of plantings, offer minimal fuel leading toward the structure,
Pleco Arcto
and maintain an inner ring of fire-retardant plants like moisture-rich succulents and well-thinned shrubs.

For those, like my two friends, whose homes were miraculously spared, I have to wonder how much the landscaping was a factor. I had lunch with one of them today, a landscape architect with a home at the intersection of Stanwood and Sycamore Canyon - Hell Central, from what I've heard. Though she's "in the biz" she admitted that she ignored some of the basic principles of fire-wise landscaping. Perhaps this was where the firefighters made a stand.

Deborah Lee Baldwin, an award winning garden photojournalist and author of Designing with Succulents, sent me a link to Monday's Wall Street Journal article about a couple of homes on Conejo Road that withstood the onslaught. Excerpt:

...498 Conejo, home of Farrokh "Fred" Ashtiani. An amateur botanist, Mr. Ashtiani knew when he moved into the one-bedroom, aluminum-sided home almost three years ago that fire could be trouble. So he erected defenses, packing the property with dozens of succulent species...

If you live in a high fire hazard area please educate yourself about appropriate landscaping around your home. If you are preparing to undertake a landscaping project, hire professionals who know about firescaping. Make sure you and your gardener educate yourselves about how best to care for your garden to avoid fuel build-up.

Find out if your local fire districts will come to your home to assess your landscape. Yes, you might have to make some significant changes and it might not be cheap, but it beats sifting through ashes and starting from scratch.


* City of Santa Barbara demonstration gardens

* San Marcos Growers Firescape page

* Garden Wise Guys - Episodes 6 through 9

* Gardens and Fire (my blog posting from 2007)

* Deborah Lee Baldwin website

* WS Journal article

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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