Providing for Defensible Space

Fuel Reduction

The 1st goal in creating a defensible space is to remove fire-prone plants, then replant with low fuel species at appropriate densities to reduce fuel available to burn.

Sometimes, wildland vegetation and landscaping can occur as an uninterrupted cover of vegetation as opposed to being irregular or widely spread individual plants. The more continuous and dense the vegetation, the greater the wildfire threat is to your home. If this situation is present within your recommended defensible space area, you should break it up by creating separation between plants or small groups of plants.

Ladder Fuels

Vegetation is often present at varying heights, similar to rungs on a ladder. Under these conditions, flames from fuels burning at ground level can be carried to shrubs, which can ignite still higher fuels like tree branches. The ladder fuel problem can be corrected by providing a separation between the vegetation layers. Within the defensible space area, a vertical separation of three times the height of the lower fuel layer is recommended

Intelligent Landscaping

Landscaping with wildfire in mind involves plant selection based primarily on the plant's ability to reduce the wildfire threat. Minimize or eliminate the use of evergreen shrubs and trees within 30 to 50 feet of a structure, because junipers, other conifers, and broadleaf evergreens, such as eucalyptus, contain oils, resins, and waxes that make these plants burn with great intensity. Use ornamental grasses and berries sparingly because they also can be highly flammable.

Flammable Vegetation

This table lists several species of plants that generate very flammable vegetative fuel or are invasive exotic plant species. Non-recommended species include the following.

Botanical NameCommon Name
Acacia (most species)Acacia
Adenostoma sparsifoliumRed Shanks
Adenostoma fasciculatumChamise
Artemisia californicaCalifornia Sagebrush
Cedrus speciesCedar
Cortaderia selloanaPampas Grass*
Cupressus speciesCypress
Eucalyptus (most species)Gum, Ironbark
Hedera helixEnglish Ivy*
Juniperus speciesJuniper
Pennisetum setaceumFountain Grass*
Pinus speciesPine
Salvia (most species)Sage
Vinca majorPeriwinkle*
Phoenix canariensisCanary Island Palm
Washingtonia filiferaCalifornia Fan Palm
Washingtonia robustaMexican Fan Palm

*Invasive exotic plant species commonly available from nurseries

"Fire Smart" Plants

Choose "fire smart" plants. These are plants have high moisture content and are low growing. Their stems and leaves are not resinous, oily, or waxy. Deciduous trees are generally more fire resistant than evergreens because they have a higher moisture content when in leaf and a lower fuel volume when dormant. Recommended species include the following.

Groundcovers & Low Shrubs (Under 36 Inches Mature Height)

Botanical NameCommon Name
Achillea tomentosaWoolly Yarrow
Baccharis pilularis"Twin Peaks" Dwarf Coyote Brush
Cotoneaster dammeriBearberry Cotoneaster
Delosperma 'Alba'White Trailing Ice Plant
Fragaria chiloensisWild Strawberry
Lantana montevidensisPurple Trailing Lantana
Malephora croceaCroceum Ice Plant
Myoporum parvifoliumMyoporum
Rosmarinus officinalis"Prostratus" Rosemary
Santolina chamaecyparissusLavender Cotton
Sedum albumSedum
Senecio serpensSenecio

Groundcovers & Low Shrubs (Under 24 Inches Mature Height)

Botanical NameCommon Name
Arctostaphylos"Pacific Mist" Manzanita
Baccharis pilularis"Twin Peaks" Dwarf Coyote Brush
Ceanothus griseus hor."Yankee Point" Wild Lilac
Cistus crispus"Descanso" Rockrose
Cistus salviifoliusSage leaf Rockrose
Encelia californicaBush Sunflower
Epilobium canumCalifornia Fuchsia
Eriophyllum confertiflorumGolden Yarrow
Eschscholzia californicaCalifornia Poppy
Helianthemum scopariumPeak Rush-Rose
Iva hayesianaSan Diego Marsh Elder
Lotus scopariusDeerweed
Lupinus bicolorDove Lupine
Mimulus aurantiacusMonkey Flower
Mirabilis californicaWishbone Bush
Myoporum parvifoliumMyoporum
Penstemon spectabilisShowy Penstemon
Rosa californicaCalifornia Rose
Rosmarinus officinalis"Prostratus" Rosemary
Salvia sonomensisCreeping Sage
Santolina chamaecyparissusLavender Cotton
Santolina virensGreen Santolina
Sisyrinchium bellumBlue-Eyed Grass
Trichostema lanatumWooly Blue Curls
Yucca whippleiOur Lord's Candle


Botanical NameCommon Name
Arbutus unedoStrawberry Tree
Ceratonia siliquaCarob
Cercis occidentalisWestern Redbud
Heteromeles arbutifoliaToyon
Platanus racemosaCalifornia Sycamore
Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifoliaHollyleaf Cherry
Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyoniiCatalina Cherry
Quercus agrifoliaCoast Live Oak
Quercus berberidifoliaScrub Oak
Rhus lanceaAfrican Sumac
Rhus ovataSugarbush
Sambucus mexicanaMexican Elderberry

Maintaining Defensible Space

A fire-resistant plant can lose this quality altogether if not properly maintained and irrigated. Lack of long-term attention can result in fire-resistant plants loading up with dead twigs, leaves, and branches to grow into large yet sometimes indiscernible fuel volumes. Drip irrigation, plus periodic pruning and cleaning, can maintain the fire resistance and the appearance of landscaping.

Environmental Regulations

Federal and state environmental regulations are designed to protect and preserve habitat. They may appear to conflict with fire protection planning concepts. However, environmental law should not be ignored in preparing for wildfire. Cooperation between environmental regulators, fire agencies, and property owners has allowed for clearance from existing structures for fire protection purposes only. Before any clearing is done, contact the Department of Development Services for guidance.

Collectively, fuel reduction, elimination of ladder fuels, intelligent landscaping, maintenance of low fuel landscaping, and awareness of applicable environmental regulations can provide for defensible space against wildfires.