In 2021 Cal Fire recorded 7,396 wildfires that damaged or destroyed 3,846 structures. Last year nearly the same number of wildfires ravaged the state, but those 7,490 blazes impacted only 876 structures. The major reason for the decline in the number of homes burned, according to Cal Fire Capt. Jordan Motta, has been the implementation of fire-resistant home and landscaping design.
Motta offered the audience at “Fire Safety and Defensible Space on the Coast,” the latest Brews and Views program at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., statistics such as these along with practical recommendations. He also had a healthy dose of humor to inspire the small steps everyone can take to protect homes and slow flames during future wildfires.
“Fires are going to happen,” Motta told his listeners. “We can’t control that, but we can limit the impact.”
Property owners can influence only one element in the fire triangle consisting of oxygen, heat and fuel, and in the fire behavior triangle of topography, weather and fuel. Reducing and removing fuel by implementing fire-resistant designs and using noncombustible materials in key areas can break up the triangles and contribute to fire containment.
Volunteers from the University of California Master Gardener program, who Motta called the peanut butter to his chocolate, offered specific landscaping tips based on a series of zones around structures. The first 5 feet around a building fall into Zone 0 that should contain absolutely no combustible material. Planters, trellises, wood piles, even organic mulches such as bark nuggets have no place in this zone. Gates and fences that abut a home should be made of metal not wood.
Motta called Zone 0 the home ignition zone and noted that even trash cans are combustible and should be stored away from the building. He described seeing numerous properties after fires where only chimneys and melted blobs of trash bins remained.
Use of hardscapes such as pavers, rocks and concrete in Zone 0 prevents the possibility that falling embers could find fuel adjacent to a home.
The next perimeter around the structure, Zone 1, extends from the 5-f00t boundary to 30 feet away. The gardeners call this the “lean and green” zone and recommend low growth and high moisture plants such as succulents. Trees in this zone should be kept 10 feet away from the roof and pruned to remain at least 6 feet off the ground.
The reduced fuel zone lies beyond 30 feet and should be designed to interrupt fires and keep flames on the ground. This zone often includes neighboring properties and public spaces.
The panelists encouraged residents to work together to ensure their entire neighborhood becomes safer in the event of a fire. Sometimes that means a group of residents getting together and offering to help with “that yard” where debris and overgrown trees threaten surrounding homes.
Motta stressed that during a wildfire firefighters focus on what they can accomplish. Homes with a defensible space and measures to slow flames provide possibilities for intervention before the structure is lost. On the other hand, studies have shown that flames can engulf poorly prepared homes within 40 seconds. “Homeowners help us by keeping that Zone 0 clear,” Motta concluded.