Fire-Wise Landscaping: Step Onto a Stunning Fire-Proof Property in University Heights
How one couple stripped their yard of fire-hazardous vegetation, plus an expert offers dos and don'ts for doing it yourself
Eucalyptus aside, the one thing Navid Mostatabi would never advise his clients to install in a fire-wise landscape? Cypress trees. “If one of these catches fire, they all can go up in flames,” he says.
When Andrew Guzzon and Cathy Strittmatter came to him after buying their University Heights home six years ago, there were upward of 40 cypress on their half-acre property, which feeds into a fire-hazardous canyon. They’re only the third owners of the historic home, which was built in 1914. The previous owner adored the green giants that grew in the untamed hills of the backyard. “We wanted to pay homage to him, but be safe,” Strittmatter explains. “We needed to clean them up.”
For Mostatabi, a landscape architect at Land Aesthetic, that meant removing the majority of those matchsticks and planting only low vegetation around the few left behind so flames would struggle to ascend them. They also tiered three terraces to slow down any flames that might inch toward the house, and scattered water-retaining foliage atop them that’s tough to burn.
At the bottom of the slope, fire-resistant plants are interspersed among wildflowers that welcome butterflies, wildlife, and, of course, the homeowners themselves. “Every time I go out, I can’t believe it’s my backyard,” Strittmatter says. “We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful—and safer—place.”
Keys to the Garden
1. Ice plant
Because the homeowner wanted an area of wildflowers (that aren’t necessarily fire-resistant) to attract wildlife, Mostatabi mixed in ice plants (a common fire-resistant foliage) as a protectant.
2. Cobble walls
The terrace faces are made of cobble found on the property. They won’t burn and are permeable enough for water to seep through, helping moisten the ground.
“All of these are just made of decomposed granite,” Mostatabi says. “For irrigation, this stuff drains better.” Most importantly, it doesn’t burn and creates obstacles flames have to hop before getting to the house.
A fire wants to crawl. With this in mind, Mostatabi spaced out the remaining cypress trees and left little vegetation at the bottom of them.
“They’re fleshy, with a lot of water stored, so they’re hard to burn.”
6. Pop-up sprinkler heads
“An irrigated landscape is going to be more fire-wise than a nonirrigated landscape,” Mostatabi explains. At the tip of the canyon, where fire is first likely to approach, he opted for pop-up sprinkler heads that spew more water than other methods.