Skip to content

Fire Resistant Landscaping & Defenses

Not all trees and plants are good and not all fire is bad….

We may ask the questions – what are fire-resistant landscapes and why fire-resistant landscapes?

Should we consider them now, when we have good snowpack and moisture years like this year or last?

The “whys” of fire-resistant landscapes seem very apparent we may assume, though we may not always think of them as something we can design as creative endeavors, fulfilling quality aesthetic results whilst gaining maximum fire protection within a property and its limitations. After people have seen fire threaten or destroy properties and lives or having seen or heard the stories, we typically do not consider the idea of a fire-resistant landscape as a design space to delve deeply into and its wide-ranging possibilities. We tend to default to the well-known “defensible spaces” protocols as the single focused solution for the needs or work of general desire landscape plans or all together reply on what is there already which in the greater Tahoe area does not necessarily mean -because it’s naturally occurring on a property, it is therefore safe enough if only defensible space efforts are carried out.

Do fire-resistant landscapes only consider the typical “defensible spaces” rules and layouts? Certainly not. There is as much creativity and connectivity to nature and building structure architecture attainable and tailored to suit differing interests and tastes, budget limitations, climate conditions, property geography, and building structure architecture. A smart fire-resistant landscape should incorporate the rules of defensible space as defined, but it should also go further as a well-thought-out and executed plan that can enhance a property, allow creativity and unique ideas, and could also benefit the local ecology besides serving to care for obvious fire hazards such as those with typical of trees, underbrush and other forest litter that serve as fuel sources for fires.

Fire-resistant landscapes are landscapes that certainly occur in nature both in hardscape form as well as soft which can be partially or fully artificially designed and constructed to serve as the protectors and mitigators of fire risk levels to all affected, including homes, buildings, roads, utilities, recreational facilities, and places as well as the local greater native environment. Fire-resistant landscapes in nature can be identified, studied, utilized, and taken advantage of if present on a property while also emulating existing natural features in our environment. Often these purposeful landscapes may have to be created, supplemented, and designed to protect people, homes, and other buildings and, as an added value can help with local environments immediately affected due to historical man-made changes in the environment or simply natural disadvantaged sites. Whether involved with new homes, commercial spaces, or public areas, fire-resistant landscapes within mountainous forested or brushland habitats can and should be seriously considered, evaluated, and designed where needed. They must be constructed or modified as landscapes to serve their best purposes in consideration of their potential aesthetical appeal and other functional benefits. While not all fire-resistant landscapes have to be fully native or of local materials and plants they should at least be evaluated as being neutral or lessening the fire risks comparatively and fit well into the local climate, and geography.

Current and recent trends in home and building design within most mountain communities more often consider how these types of man-made structures better tie in and “blend” into the natural surrounding scenery so as not to be detractive and so-to the landscape designs likely should follow suit yet may not always consider all the “tools-in-the-toolbox” in effort to gain the maximum benefits of fire-resistance and all the possibilities of beautification, personal purpose, uniqueness. Certainly, masterful architecture and craftmanship on so many levels can be achieved. Fire-resistant landscapes can be self-taught and self-designed and built, voluntarily designed and built, consulted on, requested from familiar landscape contractors and individuals as well as sought out help from the gamete of specialized professionals including designers, architects, and custom professional landscape contractor outfits.

In places such as the greater Tahoe Basin and its surrounding areas, including much of the Sierra Nevada range as in any native wild environments, a fire-resistant landscape can take advantage of naturally present landscape structures, natural materials, and the plant communities found in the adjacent wildlands essentially by re-constituting those better examples found in nature as a conceptual model to therefore be replicated with real materials and or aided by artificial materials appearing as native and natural. By utilizing these known beneficial natural elements vs. any of the lesser beneficial native-found elements and materials that may or may not be fully present at a site. Take, for instance, areas where the connectivity of granite slabs is present in the native environs and the intermingling and healthy separation of trees and plants seen often in these areas as is the degraded granite ground cover found here. Yet those natural elements that are the least risk such as this, are examples that can serve as “shields” and if necessary, be brought in and accentuated to take advantage and to help protect as well as beautify the effort to best tie into the native scenery and-or fit in with vision by those interested. If everyone did their part on any level no matter how small a property and affordability in which they can undertake, it would create a series of links of connectivity of larger fire defense and improve neighborhoods and communities in a positive domino effect way.

Those hoping for environmentally responsible and helpful outcomes will find the well-planned fire- resistant landscape serves as a fully intended purposeful, meaningful, and often beautiful long-term way of reducing fire risk which would otherwise be magnified if only minimum steps and considerations were taken. Often these eco-type and beneficial functional designs should be tailored to suit the climate and geography in which they are in and should not disturb the nearby native environment. Adding an extra value these types of approaches normally are of lower maintenance and care when executed properly.

Some examples to consider including:

  • Rock, boulder, aggregate, and pebble mulches over larger swathes of spaces replicating nature or being placed formally through creative layouts and use, mass groupings, and thickenings inter-mixed with appropriate plantings and trees to create space separation that looks natural or formal depending on the architecture design intended. Rock mulches, DG’s, etc. of these sorts ranging from as small as sand grains up to 4 inches or greater size aggregate or pebble firstly act as a ground barrier that will not ignite. It’s recommended in areas that have more tree leaf and needle litter to consider using the smaller varieties of aggregate as a means to allow easier seasonal interval rake-up sessions of this debris and in more clear areas larger rock feature mulch or coverings could be used acting like scree found on a mountainside. The second benefit is it serves simply as “mulch” which if used correctly could help retain moisture levels in the soil thereby assisting plant and tree health and acts as a blanket barrier of ground enhancement to resist fire spreading. Added ideas and value could include larger slope retentive faux “mock rock” simulating the local geology intermixed with the selected natural feature stone and gravels used especially when used functionally say along a driveway or slope needing retention or a feature that ties into the property plan. Consider using mixing grades and sizes of natural rock in random fashion such as granite or basalt types found in the area and establishing it as looking and feeling of belonging and a part of the scene.
  • Creating artificial fire break lines on the property boundary or within it that look natural or artistic but act similarly to those often cut by fire personnel such as CalFire as a barrier during events.
  • Plant, shrub, tree selection  – less resinous, oily or waxy varieties, moisture holding/retaining, low-growing with plants and shrubs, taking advantage of larger trees well-spaced from structures and each other when present pruning and thinning any shrubs, trees for health and dead matter and overgrowth in susceptible flora and the possibility of using less flammable deciduous varieties in the landscape canvas. Consider choosing plant, shrub, and tree varieties that also carry a side benefit to the local ecology and natural seed dispersion and wildlife use and value by birds, insects, and mammals providing opportunities for viewing and awe. As in defensible space suggestions, every spring and early summer a review of tree, shrub, and plant health should be evaluated and carried out if necessary. There are extensive botanical plant tree and shrub lists for both California and Nevada which identify and describe the characteristics of numerous fire-resistant varieties. Use low-growing ground covers and wildflower varieties for lower flammability in rock gardens and to accentuate the rock giving way to some seasonally stunning natural looks.
  • The use of automated irrigation and water storage and delivery to protect plants and soil through water absorption, increasing moisture levels and general health within the property to dissuade easy movement of fire across the property landscape and give plants a chance to survive or burn more slowly if fire is present will be more resilient. Well-watered and cared-for plants, shrubs, and trees surely have their health benefits and will be more resilient to fire. Well-designed irrigation water delivery systems might also have the added benefits of being utilized as fire suppression especially when the water supply is guaranteed particularly when well-protected self-water storage exists on the property whether by underground or semi-underground concrete water tanks or other, by small or large constructed ponds with pump intakes when allowed/permitted to be constructed in addition to municipal supplied water supply available which though may get shut off or used by fire personnel interrupting private supply. Some counties encourage fire suppression ponds and allow for their construction if usable by CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service, especially when located further from town supplies. In some cases, a shared cost can be attained for some ponds. It’s worth contacting your local county office to check on the possibilities. Along with these automated systems and water storage and delivery capabilities, it would be important to consider having a generator back for power up in case of electrical line failure due to fire or wind to do with the pumping system.
  • Along with water supplies, storage, ponds, and irrigation, perhaps there are additional opportunities to consider certain pool designs when pools are desired which can act as emergency fire suppression supplies when not utilizing chemically sanitized pools and larger water features. Using pools such as natural pools (i.e. Bio-pools), ozonated and/or ultra-violet light filtered or ionized pools as not to become a pollution to the environment nor pose an additional fire or other hazard if used. Chemical-reliant swimming pools such as chlorine are not good options and pose unknown hazards in any use for fire control and pose an environmental risk.
  • Permeable paving spaces for people's use. The variety of permeable paving spaces allows for groundwater infiltration in the immediate area surrounding a house and could help with soil moisture content and reduce evaporation rates in these locations. Less use of decks (wood and recycled synthetic plastic decks are common deck material choices) and more use of either gravel mulches, decorative or standard concrete, and permeable paving options for paths, driveways, and patios as ground barriers to the home or building and can serve as water collection points for underground storage or ground water recharging faculty when the snow melts or rain falls.

As a final addition, consider that home and commercial building services offer fire suppression and alert systems such as Frontline which networks with an app on your phone and alerts you to live nearby wildfire activity to your home, building, or specified location and can allow you control and use of a personal fire suppression system built into your home or building usable when at home as well as remotely when away or traveling. Some towns and cities require and allow for indoor sprinkler systems on new builds, check with your local government office.

While in the last two years, we might have enjoyed bountiful snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing wonderful recreational opportunities, resulting in good moisture content in the deep snowpacks. It’s never been a better time to wait to prepare for the inevitable future changes in patterns of weather, snowfall and moisture content, the climate in general, forest health and human development and then have enough time for planning and implementation of fire-resistant landscapes. Forward-thinking and action will provide more careful attention and successful results and cost savings.

Resources:  County of Nevada Safety Element Board of Forestry & Fire Protection Fire-Resistant California Native Species for Fire Safe Landscaping Fire Resistant Plants  Fire-Resistant Landscaping U.S. Forest Service El Dorado County Fire Safe County  Fire-Wise, Water Wise Landscaping Place County Water Agency Washoe County Nevada Division of Forestry


Thanks to Darin Brenner of AQUA~ENVIRONS Construction. You can contact Darin at 916.305.1373 or

Scroll To Top