If you live in the Wildland Urban Interface zone, known as the WUI (pronounced woo-eee), beauty may not be your first concern when considering landscape plants. Unlike town folks, the landscape challenge for the WUI is fire resistance.
The first goal, according to Amy Jo Detweiler, associate professor with the Oregon Extension Service in Redmond, is to plant defensively in the 30-foot circumference around your home. This can minimize damage to the house and the life and property around the home.
"If there is a wildfire to be fought, it makes it safer for the firefighters and protects their lives as they fight the fire," says Detweiler.
The fire danger can come from a local source or from a distant fire plume, which can send larger chunks of fuel into the air, says Detweiler. Wind transports these to new locations, but a fire-savvy landscape is less likely to provide a fuel source for these rogue embers.
While any plant that does not add fuel to the fire can be considered "fire resistant," Detweiler coauthored "Fire Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes: Selecting Plants That May Reduce Your Risk From Wildfire." Its full-color pages include plant photos, requirements, growth habit and benefits, such as butterfly attraction. To order, contact the Deschutes County Extension Service, http://extension.oregonstate.edu/deschutes and look for publication number PNW 590.
No matter what plants you choose, they shouldn't be placed under the eaves, says Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Medford. That's advice people in town can heed, as well.
"The plants enjoy the freedom for roots to expand and getting rain and snow," says Ballou, citing reduced habitat for spiders, improved airflow and decreased blistering of paint, mold and mildew as additional benefits. He's no fan of bark mulch, either.
"If you crush the plant, and it has a strong odor, it tends to be more flammable," says Detweiler. Think eucalyptus and sage brush, plus most of the conifers, junipers and other resinous plants or those with gummy saps.
For safety outside the 30-foot circle create a transition to native plants and reduce the wildlands fuel. Cutting trees is not necessary. Trees can be an asset in many ways, says Ballou. They filter airborne heat, absorb radiant heat and their shade decreases fire intensity.
"Having a mosaic of habitats around the home is best," says Ballou. Eliminate some thickets by taking out struggling trees and shrubs. Leave some thickets for wildlife.
Himalayan blackberry, which can grow up around a fence line and take over riparian areas, needs management if you don't want to eliminate them. These plants burn ferociously, due to all of the dead material in the center, says Ballou.
"They go up, literally, in a ball of flame." One answer is to cultivate the plants, "just like raspberries," he says. "It takes annual management."
If you have extensive areas of blackberry, a contractor can remove them with heavy equipment. Or you can break up the area, interrupting the continuous growth and decreasing risk. The same is true of ceanothus, another fire hazard good for browsing deer and bird cover.
Plants that hold in the dry, dead material or produce a lot of chaff will provide fuel for a fire, says Ballou. Manzanita, a useful native, burns easily. Don't eliminate — thin it.
"It's hardy and attractive and great for stabilizing steep slopes if you care for it," he says. "Good preventive care will bring you into low-maintenance mode for quite a few years."
Fire prevention can be beautiful, but you might still have questions about your landscape. A free on-site inspection by a forester is available, says Ballou. For more information, call him at 541-665-0662.