September 7, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--Fire destroys hundreds of homes each year in California and often burns thousands of acres of land. If your property was damaged by fire, the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) is pleased to offer some recommendations to help your landscape recover and to help protect your property.
In general, many plants and trees are exposed to fire in their native environment and many will recover in the spring and should be left alone. Any pruning or cutting back of fire-damaged plants should not be done until the plants show signs of recovery. Removing bark, leaves or limbs can expose the plants to sun damage. Heat from the sun can actually kill the tissue beneath the bark on some trees. It is best to leave them alone until new growth appears.
Some plants recover faster than others. Burned plants can still be green underneath and still have healthy roots. If similar plants appear to be recovering, wait a few more weeks before removing damaged parts. Full damage to woody plants may not be apparent until the next spring or summer season. Re-examine them at that time and then carefully remove damaged wood to make room for new growth. Ash on the plants will not cause damage and should be left alone.
Damaged trees that have branches that are cracked or overhanging homes, driveways etc., that can be a future hazard, should be removed. Trees that have shifted in the soil due to wind or burn damage and those with burned roots should be removed as well, because they are now considered unstable and could potentially fall. If fire has completely burned off all the bark around the entire circumference of the tree and/or fire has burned deep into the trunk, the tree should also be removed.
Fertilization is not recommended. Immediately fertilizing can cause damage to the roots and cause additional harm to the plants. Waiting also gives the soil time to recover. Wait until the spring and fertilize at half rates with a product containing nitrogen. Do not fertilize with manures at that time, since they contain a high concentration of salts that can injure roots.
Plastic irrigation lines, parts and drains may be damaged. Check your existing irrigation system for leaks and damage and document them for your insurance company. Also shut off irrigation water immediately after a fire to help prevent erosion and further damage.
It is generally not recommended to water plants immediately after a fire. If your area is experiencing a drought and water is necessary, water gently by hand. Severely burned soils do not absorb water well. Make sure the flow of water is slow enough to be absorbed. Also examine and clean concrete drains and swales. Many become filled with ash and mud during a fire.
In areas where protective plants are removed or destroyed, soil becomes vulnerable to erosion. Soil erosion can happen slowly or it can happen very quickly in a heavy rain. The exact measures needed for your property are based on your soil type, slope grade, home location, weather, water availability etc. Also areas exposed by fire can open the door for invasive species and weeds. In some areas erosion control materials or mechanical control measures may need to be applied. Contact your local CalTrans office or local forest service for guidelines in your area.
Water flow is an important factor of any erosion plan. Never underestimate the power of storm water and debris. Evaluating the area and planning for storm events is a critical first step to protecting your property and improper or inadequate measures can aggravate potential problems. If you need help with erosion control or fire prevention landscaping, be sure to hire a licensed professional who specializes in that area of expertise. Ask for references, insurance certificates and request to see their license. You'll want to protect your home and your neighbors' as well.
It is also an important time to evaluate your property's landscape and damage. Take a look at what worked and what did not and try to determine how to make your property safer in case of a future fire. For future reference, it is also a good idea to keep records and photos of your landscape as part of your home inventory list for insurance purposes.
For helpful information about fire prevention landscaping please go to: www.clca.org/clca/education/fire-protection.php