Firescaping: Are some plants survivors?

In the weeks since the Waterfall fire, I have visited many fire-scarred landscapes trying to help homeowners find a bit of hope in what remained. I have taught landscape design for wildfire defense - "firescaping" - since 1998, but this was my first experience seeing plant responses to a firestorm.

Junipers went up like torches, rarely leaving even blackened skeletons behind. Colorado blue spruce needles, although scorched, stayed on trees until I brushed against them. Then they all would fall at once, raining like ash from the trees.

Lawns were brown, as if they had been neglected and lacked water for months. Their recent moisture and color steamed right out of the once-green blades. Even masonry walls between a home and the fire couldn't prevent some damage to a landscape, although thankfully, the home was saved.

Maple leaves didn't respond well to fire, withering as nature's blight passed through. I don't know if they will pull through. In some cases, Jeffery pine trees offer more hope with their fire-resistant bark and hardy buds. Apple and pear trees were covered with "half-baked" fruit, but the tissue under the bark remained green and stems were pliable, good indicators that the trees may survive.

Roses, domestic or wild, even though scorched from the top to the ground, showed new growth within days after the fire, responding well to irrigation. Honeysuckle survived quite well at one home.

Honeylocust trees with discolored leaves had new growth starting from their branches and trunk. Willows with blackened trunks and branches looked destroyed from a distance, but on closer inspection, vigorous green growth sprouted from the base.

Aspen were rarely significantly damaged and are notorious resprouters after a disturbance. Many other plants survived the burning of their outer extremities - potentilla, eunonymus and lilac - to name a few.

Firescaping lessons that I have had reinforced include:

-- Do not put junipers and other evergreens up next to the house. This is like dousing a house in kerosene in the face of fire. Keep spruce and pine trees 30 feet from a home.

-- Do not place fire-prone plants on a slope leading up to the house, creating a pathway for fire to climb and reach your home more easily.

-- Keep spaces between plants to avoid continuous fuels.

-- Maintain all your plants, particularly evergreens, and do not allow dead needles, leaves and other debris to collect in them.

If you want more information on landscape recovery after the fire, I have created an e-mail list and will send out answers to questions, updated information and resource information via a group e-mail. Join by e-mailing me at For those without e-mail, call me at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, 887-2252, with your complete address, and I will mail information to you.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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