Currently fires are raging in parts of California, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma as well as in the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Minnesota and even Florida. Since September is still fire season for many parts of North America and since horse owners usually live in rural areas, I thought I would share some of what I learned this past month at a class I took on Firewise Landscaping.

Where Matt and I and the horses now live in southwestern Idaho, there is a greater need for wildfire awareness because of the dry desert climate paired with a high potential for lightning storms. Earlier this summer Matt and I went on a moonlight trail ride with horse friends in the Owyhee Mountains. A warm wind came up during our ride and off in the distance we could see ominously dark clouds and lighting strikes. By the next morning we learned that something like nine rangeland fires had started that night. Though we were far away, the smoke from those fires drifted in thickly over Treasure Valley the next day.

Redflower currant

Redflower currant has a high moisture content, which makes it fire-resistant.

Reducing your risk of wildfire begins with properly landscaping your property, called firewise landscaping, which is something most of us need to consider and plan for. Firewise landscaping starts with looking at your defensible space--the area around your home or barn where vegetation is managed to reduce the chance of igniting during a wildfire.

There are three Firewise zones or circles of defensible space around your house or barn:

  • Zone  One = the 30+ foot circumference around your house or barn
  • Zone Two = the area that's between 30 and 60 feet around your house or barn
  • Zone Three = the area that extends from 60 to 100 feet around your house or barn

In Zone One, include only low-growing, fire-resistant plants and hardscape--rocks, rock mulch or stone patios. Zone One plants should always be irrigated to keep them green. Keep these plants well-pruned, removing any dead materials and leaf debris. Mow or weed-wack grass or weeds. Strictly avoid conifers, which ignite easily and wick flames up their canopy to the tops of buildings. Ground covers are an excellent choice because they produce little or no flame when ignited and do not require much water.

Zone Two can include other low-growing, fire-resistant plants but should also continue with the rock mulch and hardscaping. Keep plant densities down.  Shrubs can be added but should be kept at a distance from each other of twice their height. Keep the volume of plant material low by mowing tall grass and pruning trees or shrubs. This area, too, should be irrigated and remain green.
Zone Three can contain other types of plants and those of taller varieties, including trees. To reduce fire risk, thin or prune branches and remove lower tree limbs approximately 6 to 10 feet off the ground. This reduces the fuel ladder risk that allows flames to leap from grass to lower tree limbs and climb to tree tops.

Mock orange

Mock orange's high soap content makes it fire-resistant.

Examples of plants with increased flammability include sagebrush, juniper and conifers.  Attributes in plants that increase flammability include:  

  • High resin content
  • Low moisture
  • Tall growth with lots of branches, cones or other leaf debris

Fire-resistant plants have the following characteristics:

  • High moisture content  (redflower currant)
  • High salt or soap content (Honeysuckle, soapwort, saltbrush)
  • Low growing, compact form (creeping phlox, stonecrop)
  • Low oil or resin content (clematis, flax)
  • Drought tolerant (penstemon, globemallow)
  • Green stems (succulents)

A few other good examples of fire-resistant plants include quaking aspen, mature Ponderosa pine, fruit trees, golden currant, hawthorn, mock orange, snowberry, elderberry and sumac.

It is important to understand that fire travels uphill very quickly; a draw or valley works just like a chimney, pulling fire and flames up its sides. Houses, barns and other structures should be away from the edges of bluffs or tops of hills. In future articles I will talk more about firewise safety and preparedness for horse owners and I will talk about plants toxic to horses.

In conclusion, to avoid inviting wildfire onto your horse property, remember that if a landscaping plant’s not green, keep it low and lean!

For more resources on the current fire situation: