Monday, January 7, 2013

Protecting the Home From Wildfire

We've had a respite from worries about brush and forest fires over the last few weeks, with cooler temperatures and rain. My Australian husband and I have been keeping up with the bush fire situation in Australia, which reminds me that I need to fire-proof my country place to the best of my ability, before weather conditions get hot and dry again, as they undoubtedly will.

The closest I've come to a forest fire was in 1996 when an electric wire fell and started a fire at Altamira. Fortunately, I saw it happen, and The McMahan Volunteer Fire Dept got there within a few minutes (which reminds me, I need to send in a donation to them), but not before it got large enough to be very scary. The most frightening thing, to me, was seeing the fire jump from tree top to tree top. Pine trees were the very worst. There would be a tree standing in relatively isolation, say, 15 feet away from its nearest neighbor, looking just like it always had. Then, suddenly, explosively, it would burst into flame -- the whole canopy all at once.

I have planted 3 pine trees at the Berry Farm and a few junipers, mainly because the grasshoppers were killing everything else I tried to plant. Both of these species burn readily -- I've observed that the pine is especially bad. Dead juniper wood and leaves burn easily, but green branches not so much, at least in my experience. There are no trees at all within 45 feet of my house, but there are 2 large old junipers in the yard of the old homestead (I need to tear the old homestead down, because it is beyond redemption), and I planted a few more near the pole barn, as a wind break.

I'm wondering ... if I keep all the lower branches pruned from the large old trees and keep the young junipers cut low, would it be OK to keep them? Or should I remove them? Or should I let them grow tall and keep the lower branches trimmed back? It's the leaves and small branches that burn, not the trunks. It's not all that easy to get a cedar log to burn. I used to throw a cedar log on my fire every evening, for the fragrance. I'd always need to get the fire going with some other kind of wood first. Some other windbreak possibilities are: native plum thicket, yaupon holly (which I've heard burns readily but which, in my experience, is not nearly as likely to burn as pine), Japanese ligustrum (a very well adapted exotic which, I have to say, the grasshoppers love to eat), Chinese photinia (a well-adapted exotic), Russian olive or eleagnus (a well adapted exotic that produces berries in cooler climates, but it tends not to fruit in central Texas), and hardy olive trees, which tend to form thickets and do very well in my garden in San Antonio but which are frost sensitive below 25 degrees F.

Sunset Valley, Texas has published a nice article on plants that don't tend to catch fire easily. I'm just east of the Hill Country, but many of the same plants grow on my land. Sunset Valley recommends:

Unfavorable tree don’t have to be removed, just keep branches pruned to 10 feet about the ground
   Firewise Plant Recommendations for your Region



Texas Persimmon                                                              Desert Willow                                                         
            Crape Myrtle                                                                     Bigtooth Maple                                               
            Mexican Sycamore                                                            Black Walnut                                                    
Texas Ash                                                                           Mexican Plum
            Texas Mountain Laurel                                                      Texas Smoke Tree
            Red Maple                                                                           Silver Maple
            Boxelder                                                                               Pecan
            Bitternut Hickory                                                                 Shagbark Hickory
             Pignut Hickory                                                                     Mockernut Hickory
             Sugarberry                                                                            Hackberry
            Netleaf Hackberry                             


                Red Yucca                                                                          China Rose
                Tea Rose                                                                            Pomegranate
                Winter Honeysuckle                                                          Coral Berry
                Strawberry Bush                                                                Eastern Coral Bean
                Indigo Bush                                                                        Common Buttonbush


                Purple Leatherflower (Cover for small birds)           Coral Honeysuckle (Hummingbirds)

                Snapdragon Vine (Fruits eaten by birds)                     Engelmann Daisy (Seed-eating birds)
                Turk’s Cap (Attracts hummingbirds)                           Maximilian Sunflower (Seed-eating birds)
                Golden-eye (Provides nectar to bees)                            Rose Pavonia (Attracts butterflies)
                Indian Blanket (Attracts butterflies)                             Coreopsis (Attracts butterflies)
                Purple Coneflower (Seed-eating birds)                        Sweet Violet (Attracts butterflies)


                Redtop (Good birdseed)                                                    Black Grama (Wildlife grazing)
                Hairy Grama (Wildlife grazing)                                   Buffalo Grass (Drought tolerant)
                Weeping Lovegrass                                                           Plains Muhly (Wildlife grazing)
                Bush Muhly (Wildlife grazing)                                      Tobosa

I do like the junipers for their berries and fragrant wood. When my father was lying on his death bed, I took a juniper branch to his bedside on Christmas day and lit it on fire in a ceramic container (over my mother's strenuous protests). My father was quite moved by this. He said the fragrance of the burning juniper took him back to his youth when he and his father used to go on camping trips into the Hill Country west of Austin. He said it was one the of the nicest Christmas gifts he'd ever received.

Finally, in support of the widely maligned juniper, a quote from Edward Abbey:

“The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante's paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.”

A reminder from a couple of years ago, when I watched helplessly as the Bastrop fire approached Altamira: Wildfires in Texas

1 comment:

  1. A couple of tips for pruning;

    Always prune from the bottom up, never prune the healthy branches, you can usually tell the healthy ones from the decaying ones by feeling the bark, and measuring the length of them compared to others.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service