California homeowners will face new rules about where they can plant shrubs: NPR
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In most neighborhoods, homes are hugged by greenery, with flowers lining the front steps and large shrubs blocking the windows. But in wildfire-prone places, like California, fire experts say this suburban model needs to change radically as human-driven climate change makes severe wildfires more frequent.
California has long had the nation’s strongest defensible space bases. Now, it’s drafting rules that would make it the first state to limit vegetation directly adjacent to buildings. In areas at risk of wildfire, plants within five feet of a home will be strictly restricted.
The new rules are not expected to go well. Many homes have installed landscaping along their exterior walls, something that homeowners may be hesitant or even refuse to move. State regulators are evaluating whether certain plants can safely survive in that area, such as lush lawns or mature trees without their branches touching the house.
“We realize that change is not going to be very easy for some homeowners,” says Daniel Berlant, fire chief for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. “But the science is very simple: Even a well-maintained, green plant will catch fire and it will destroy your house.”
Fire experts say it’s about upending the idea of how landscapes should be designed. Walkways and patios should be directly adjacent to the house, rather than plants.
With the costs of wildfires soaring, both in terms of human losses and dollars, California regulators say communities need to do everything they can to reduce the risks. The upcoming rules could have much broader impacts, as several other Western states have followed California’s lead on wildfire policy.
Two buildings, two different results
At a large, empty airport in Sacramento, firefighters set fire to two small buildings.
It’s a demonstration, led by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an insurance industry-funded nonprofit that studies what makes buildings vulnerable.
Both structures are surrounded by bark cover, green plants and shrubs. But there’s a key difference: around a building, the mulch and shrubs are right next to the walls. On the other hand, they are separated by a stone corridor that acts as a barrier.
Two small fires are burning in the mulch, mimicking the typical ignition of large wildfires as strong winds carry embers away from the fire.
“Research shows that embers are usually the first point of attack,” says Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. “Those embers can be the size of your thumb or even the palm of your hand and can be up to half a mile high.”
The flames quickly spread through the mulch near one of the buildings, carrying the flames directly into the walls. The structure eventually burns to the ground. The other building next door survived. The mulch burned until it hit the stone path where it stopped.
Defensible space can’t guarantee a home will survive a wildfire, but experts say surrounding exterior walls with hardscape, such as gravel, walkways or patios, can reduce the risk.
“Adapting to Wildfire will require a different aesthetic,” says Anne Cobb, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Home and Commercial Safety. “We need to take our beautiful landscaping and flowers that we enjoy so much as humans, and we need to move them away from the house where we can see them from the window and still enjoy our gardens, but not directly next to the structure.”
Moving plants will be a tough sell
As wildfire tolls mounted in California, lawmakers passed a bill in 2020 to create an “embers-proof zone” five feet from a home. Intense fires, in part due to a hotter and drier climate, have destroyed nearly 40,000 homes and buildings in the past six years statewide, causing billions of dollars in damage.
Now, state authorities are writing rules for the five-foot zone, also known as “Zone 0.” The state already has rules for creating a defensible space within 100 feet of a building, which requires removing dead branches and cutting tree limbs. The new rules will apply in areas at risk of fire outside city limits, as well as in areas at higher risk of fire within the cities themselves.
The simplest version of the rules could state that no plants are allowed within five feet of a building, something that can be more easily enforced by fire inspectors. But public acceptance will be more than just a challenge, organizers worry. They are now studying what type of plants might be allowed, such as young plants with space between them, lawns or ground cover, or mature trees that are cut back far enough from the building.
“Emotionally, this is a big change for people,” says Frank Bigelow, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire’s Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation Division. “Most people who are compliant now, will never be compliant.”
Bigelow says it’s very difficult for his parents.
“When I told them: ‘In the front yard, where you have the mulch and you have that little tree in front of the window, all that has to come out,'” he says. “That’s the way it is,” said my father. We paid a lot of money to get those landscaping done. I’m not conveying that.”
The rules were supposed to be finalized in January, but tensions led to delays. The regulations will apply to new construction first in 2025, as changes may be easier to implement while homes are being built.
“We worked with builders and industry to flip the idea: Put the walkway right next to the house, then put the plants on the other side of the walkway, so now you have five feet of distance,” he says.
For existing homes, the rules will be implemented in 2026. State firefighters say it will take a widespread education campaign to help homeowners make the switch. One of the biggest drivers can be from insurance companies. With wildfire damage skyrocketing, Californians are seeing their insurance premiums rise and a few companies have left the state’s market entirely. A handful of companies now offer discounts to homeowners who create defensible space around their homes.
“This is the thing that insurance companies are realizing in terms of risk reduction,” Wright says. “States across the West are following California’s lead.”