MIDSUMMER is fire season. For gardeners living near mountain fynbos or nature reserves, it is a good time to assess whether your garden would protect you – or increase your danger – if your home lies in the path of an oncoming wildfire.
This month, 26 Garden Centre Association nurseries affiliated to the South African Nursery Association in the Eastern, southern and Western Cape are launching a Firewise promotion to educate gardeners on how to firescape (landscaping to firewise principles) their gardens. Customers will be alerted to which plants are firewise.
The principles of firescaping have been developed by Firewise communities across the world and the local organisation (www.firewisesa.org.za) is working with garden centres on this project. Behind the initiative is the government’s Working on Fire programme to manage South Africa’s wildfires (approximately 2 000 a year) by employing 1 700 firefighters in one of the country’s most progressive job-creation programmes.
Safeguarding your property against wildfires can potentially make the difference between whether your house is saved or consumed in a fire. Certain properties are more vulnerable to fire than others.
Local experience, together with case studies of wildfires in California and Australia, have shown that homes alongside fynbos reserves or beside dense stands of woody invasive alien vegetation are at huge risk. Houses at the top of a slope, as well as properties directly exposed to prevailing winds or in a valley through which wind is channelled, are also at risk. Firescape in zones How do you develop a firewise garden? Identify and remove flammable (usually invasive alien) plants which can explode into fireballs that destroy your home. Research the list of plants (www.lifeisagarden.co.za) known to be relatively fire-resistant. Finally, divide the garden into three zones of defensible space that can be firescaped with firewise plants.
Here are descriptions of the three firewise zones: Perimeter zone This is a buffer zone on the garden boundary which should be planted with low-growing, fleshy-leaved ground covers, hedging plants and isolated forest trees or large aloes that are fire-resistant and resprout when damaged by fire. Never use flammable fencing materials. Garden zone Within the garden, design “island beds” surrounded by lawn, paving or gravel. Choose fire-resistant trees and shrubs but make sure they do not touch each other or create a ladder effect that can deliver a fire to your home. Interplant the islands with low-growing ground covers. Patio zone Create a 3m-wide zone of hard landscaping, lawn or low-growing fireresistant plantings around the house – a great place for shade loving, flowering plants. Firewise tips
Remove all illegal invasive alien plants as many are highly flammable, including Port Jackson, black wattles, pampas grass, giant reed and Spanish broom.
Conifers, deodars and pines will light-up like a Christmas tree in a wildfire. Known to be the least fireresistant plants in a garden, you need to assess whether they pose a danger, and if so, remove them.
Trees are best placed on the outer boundaries of large properties.
Allow plenty of space between plants near the home and avoid dense shrubberies. Instead, create irregular, sparsely planted small islands at least 3m to 5m apart. By spreading plantings out in this manner they cannot form a continuous canopy that provides a leapfrog path for fire to your front door.
Avoid timber decking, fencing, pergolas and archways.
Install non-flammable hard landscaping such as flagstone walks, brick patios, stone retaining walls, gravel and inorganic mulches.
Finally, appreciate that the defensible space around your home differs according to the terrain. On level ground, the defensible space is 10m in all directions from the house. If your house and garden is on a slope, the defensible area needs to be larger – at least 30m. The steeper the slope, the larger the defensible space needs to be – 60m or more – especially if the garden is lower than the house. For more information go to www.lifeisagarden.co.za or www.firewisesa.org.za