STILLWATER — Earlier this year, northwest Oklahoma fell victim to one of the worst wildfires in many years. Lives, homes, livestock, pasture land, crops and thousands of miles of fencing were lost to the flames.
Although a wildfire does not discriminate among its victims, there are some steps homeowners can take to help protect their property from fire, whether it be a wildfire or an accidental fire at home caused by a charcoal grill during a cookout.
The key to keeping a fire at bay is to not provide fuel for the fire. There are plants and shrubs available that are more fire-resistant than others. Fire-resistant plants are those that don’t readily ignite from a flame or other ignition sources. Although the plants themselves can be damaged or killed by a fire, their foliage and stems don’t significantly contribute to the fuel and, therefore, the fire’s intensity.
Seeing a need for information for homeowners, several agencies, including Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension, joined forces in the early 1990s and coined the term Firewise. This became a catalyst for educational resources and programs to help homeowners, communities and firefighters to make sensible choices in the wild land/urban interface, which would in turn help control wildfires and protect property.
When selecting plants to include in a Firewise landscape, homeowners need to identify plants with a low flammability rating for areas nearing the home. By selecting plants with certain characteristics, you can reduce the flammability potential of your landscape and provide habitat for wildlife. There are several factors that influence the fire characteristics of plants, including plant moisture content, age, total volume, dead material and chemical content.
Plants with low flammability don’t accumulate large amounts of combustible dead branches, needles or leaves as they grow. They also have little dead wood and tend not to accumulate dry, dead material within the plant. They have open, loose branches with a low volume of total branches. Many of our deciduous trees and shrubs are fire resistant.
Leaf characteristics are something else to consider. Leaves that are moist and supple, such as the sedum leaf, are more resistant to fire.
Many herbaceous perennials make excellent Firewise plantings. Some remain green in the winter, which in turn reduces their flammability.
Oils and resins found in the sap of some trees and plants such as pine, juniper, cedar and Yaupon holly, make them extremely flammable. Homeowners who want to use these plants and trees in the landscape should avoid placing them adjacent to their homes and other structures on the property.
In addition, plants that accumulate dry or dead material such as twigs, needles and leaves should not be planted against the house. This includes many vines like trumpet creeper and ornamental grasses. In winter, these plants have large amounts of dry material and are extremely flammable, allowing a wildfire to spread rapidly.
As you plan out a new landscape or add to an existing one, be sure to consider fire potential in your plant selections. For more information on Firewise, please visit www.firewise.org.
David Hillock is a consumer horticulturist with Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension.