FIRE SAFETY

FIRE FUEL MANAGEMENT STANDARDS

PURPOSE & CONTENT

 

These Fire Fuel Management Strategies are a guide for vegetation management and how to create and maintain a defensible space to mitigate fire risk around a home and along evacuation routes in the community.  It is intended to be a resource guide for homeowners to manage landscaping and native vegetation on all parts of a property.  Reference resources are indicated at the end of the Strategies and, when referenced, are shown in italic.

 

From 2017 to 2020 wildfires have ravaged communities up and down California. Rolling Hills residents have read the accounts of fires devastating communities in Malibu, Santa Barbara, Napa and Paradise.  This has prompted the entire community to take an increased interest in reducing the threat of wildfire.

Quote from resident evacuating from home in the Camp fire: LA Times:

“It took hours to get out. “I had to drive through tunnels of flames.” I didn’t know if I was gonna make it…Several people within eyesight behind me didn’t…They were burned in their cars.” 

At the request of concerned homeowners, the RHCA, in coordination with the City of Rolling Hills (“City”), is taking action to mitigate the fire risks by working with emergency responders to evaluate and improve evacuation routes and to provide information to residents on what they can do to protect their homes, loved ones, pets and livestock. Because most of the property in the City is privately owned, it is incumbent upon homeowners to do their part protect their property.

 

By adopting the Fuel Management Strategies, the Association’s objectives are to: 

 

  • Help residents create Defensible Space around homes,

  • Reduce the amount of fire fuel and wildfire risk in the community,

  • Provide guidelines for plant and tree maintenance that also reduce conditions which can spread fires, 

  • Provide guidelines for canyon vegetation management and areas beyond 200’ from a structure,

  • Create safe evacuation for residents and access for first responders and emergency services, and

  • Improve insurability for properties in Rolling Hills.

 

See Section D for the description of Defensible Space as a key concept for managing fire risks.

Through the application of these Strategies in the community, a more fire-resistant and defensible community can be created while also sustaining a healthy, natural landscape. 

 

It is important to note that proper design and implementation of Defensible Space, including the application of these Strategies, does not guarantee fire protection in the event of a wildfire, but can enhance the probability of life safety and structure protection.

 

Vegetation management is only one of several critical strategies available to homeowners to reduce fire risk on their property. Others methods include home design, location and placement and fire response systems.  The RHCA recommends homeowners take an integrated approach to fire safety.  

FIRE HISTORY IN ROLLING HILLS

Rolling Hills, and all of the Palos Verdes Peninsula are designated by the state of California as a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.  The most recent large fire that impacted Rolling Hills was in 2009 and originated in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, outside the southern boundary of Rolling Hills. Since then there have been smaller fires that were caused by animals in the electrical wires and overheated gardening equipment which thankfully, were quickly identified and extinguished before causing any significant damage.

The most destructive fire in Rolling Hills’ history took place in June 1973 and burned in the Flying Triangle neighborhood, south of Crest Road.  The fire burned 975 acres, 12 houses were burned to the ground and another 10 homes were damaged. 

DUTIES OF CARE AND MAINTENANCE

Responsibilities for fire fuel management in Rolling Hills include:

 

  1. Property Owners are responsible for maintaining their property.  This responsibility starts with the defensible space around their homes and extends to the property lines.  It is up to homeowners to apply these maintenance strategies to their own property and identify priorities and areas that need remediation.

  2. The Rolling Hills Community Association (“RHCA”) performs limited weed clearance and maintenance in roadside easements and in common areas like bridle trails and riding rings.    The RHCA assists homeowners with vegetation management though community projects like green waste chipping, education and implementing recommendations for common areas made by the fire consultants hired by the RHCA Board of Directors.

  3. City of Rolling Hills (“City”) is responsible for overall safety standards and coordination with public agencies and provides assistance in the enforcement of the Fire Codes.

  4. Los Angeles County Fire Department (“LACFD” or “Fire Department”) monitors fire safety and conducts annual brush clearance inspections starting June 1st of each year.  The LACFD has identified the following priorities when conducting annual inspections:

  • The first priority is to preserve lives (evacuation routes);

  • The second priority is to protect properties (with LACFD access); and

  • The third priority is to reduce overall fire risk (by balancing vegetation management and environmental protection with the goal of reducing fire risk). 

 

The inspections are looking to reduce fire hazards around the home, including Fire Ladders and hazardous vegetation, and ensuring there is access for Fire Department apparatus. Homeowners are notified if there is a violation and have the responsibility to correct the problem areas.  Websites for the local the Fire Code are in the Resources section at the end of this document. Fire Code section 325.2.1-2 are requirements for vegetation management around a structure.

 

Unresolved violations can result in a fine of $500 plus additional costs for the County or Fire Department to mitigate the fire hazard. 

 

The Fire Department also partners with the Rolling Hills City Council, RHCA Board of Directors and Block Captains to educate the community to provide fire management information.  

 

DEFENSIBLE SPACE AND KEY CONCEPTS

Defensible Space is the area around your home that should be continually maintained so that if there is a fire, there is less chance of the fire being carried from vegetation to a home or structure.  

 

A key to planning or maintaining landscaping and a Defensible Space around your property is to understand fire behavior.  Fire is carried three ways:  

 

  • By embers landing on combustible materials (leaves, dry plants, patio furniture), 

  • Radiant heat can be hot enough to ignite a plant or house without direct flame contact.

  • Direct flames may not ignite a house directly, but may ignite plants or break window glass, allowing fire to enter a house.  

 

The safety of Defensible Space is enhanced by mitigation of these three types of fire behavior.

 

A Defensible Space mitigates fires using three key concepts or approaches:

 

  1. Limit fire fuel around a home by managing the volume and height of plants to reduce the probability of a structure catching fire from surrounding landscaping.  

 

  • The first 5 feet from your home are the most critical areas. The first 5 feet should have little to no combustible materials. Less flammable material reduces the heat transfer and the chance of fire being carried from outer areas of a property to a structure. This also creates an area where emergency responders can safely defend a structure. The landscaping adjacent to your home should be limited to smaller plants and clusters – think “lean and green”.  

  • The next 25 feet (i.e., up to 30 feet) should be limited to  selective planting to prevent fire fuel.

 

Having Defensible Space around a home does not mean that you can’t have a beautiful yard.  The key is plant selection and location.  Select higher moisture plants and shorter plants for areas closest to your home.  Taller plants or more dense groupings of bushes and trees should be planted further from the home.  Avoid plants with high resin or oil content (like pines or juniper), that have a lot of dead material (acacia) or create fire brands (palm trees and pampas grass).

 

Fire Fuel Management Zones are: 

 

Name Defined area General concept for vegetation management

Zone 1       0-30 feet from home Low shrubs and groundcover

Zone 2      30-100 feet from home Irrigated ornamental landscaping some decorative trees

Zone 3     100 -200 feet from home Slightly denser landscaping or native plants

Zone 4       Beyond 200 feet Usually neglected areas which need special attention, 

Including – specific to Rolling Hills:

 

  • Bridle trails

  • Roadsides

  • Canyons / slopes

  • Utility poles

  • Driveways

  • Vacant lots

  • Easements

  • Fire hydrants

 

 

 

PLANTING AND MAINTENANCE STRATEGIES FOR FIRE MANAGEMENT ZONES

 

Zone 1 :  Within 30 Feet from Residence or Other Structure 

0 to 5 feet from a structure, should be a “Non-flammable Area” as the first line of defense – this area immediately adjacent to the home (think under the roof) should have minimum vegetation.  Key recommendations include:

  • Keep plants away from windows and vents

  • Avoid planting under roof eaves

  • If there is any planting under windows, the distance between the window and bush should be at least two times the height of the bush (example:  a two-foot-tall bush should be at least four feet away from a window or vent). Bushes under eaves and windows are discouraged because they can ignite a structure or the heat from the burning vegetation can break windows and allow the fire to enter the structure.

  • Vines or climbing plants should be removed from the structure.

  • Tree branches overhanging a roof should be pruned and maintained to limit leaf drop on the roof.

  • Italian cypress should be removed within this zone.

The “Lean and Green Area” area 5 to 30 feet from a structure consists of low growing and higher moisture plants.  Use of trees should be limited, but they can be included as focal points of landscaped areas.  Key recommendations include:

  • It is suggested that most of the area be limited to low growing plants that are less than 2 to 3 feet in height, like irrigated lawns.

  • Ornamental plants and ground cover are acceptable, planted in such a manner that they cannot transmit fire from outer areas to the residence or other structures. 

  • Occasional accents of woody plants can be used sparingly if the selections are widely spaced. 

  • Bushes and trees under 16 feet should have the bottom one-third of the bush trimmed up from the ground – this removes the fuel ladder from burning grass or mulch.

  • Trees are permissible, but should not form a means of transmitting fire to any structure.  At their maturity trees should be far enough away from a structure that they don’t touch or overhang the roof.  Tree branches must be a minimum of 10 feet away from a chimney.

    • Bushes should not be planted under or within 6 feet of the canopy of a tree.

    • Ground cover under trees should have a maximum height of 4 inches.

    • Trees over 24 feet in height should have their lowest branches at least 8’ above the ground.

    • Any trees that overhang a driveway should have branches below 16 feet cut back or removed to ensure fire truck access. 

  • Firewood, manure, compost and other combustible materials must be a minimum of 30 feet from any building or structure [Fire Code 325.2.1(1)]. 

  • Avoid woody bushes, shrubs or masses of un-mowed or fountain grasses within 10 feet of a structure. 

  • Removal of the highly flammable plants is recommended if they are within 10 feet of a structure – highly flammable plants include Italian cypress, junipers, palm trees, pampas grass, eucalyptus, pine.  

 

Zone 2: 30 Feet to 100 Feet from Residence or Other Structure 

Vegetation can be planted with higher density than Zone 1, however, care should be taken not to create any horizontal or vertical Fuel Ladders-- see Section D(2) for a description.

  • Avoid conifers, flammable woody shrubs, and tall ornamental grasses in this zone. 

  • Bushes may be grouped so they are spaced apart two times the height of the bushes apart from other groups -- groups of two-foot tall bushes should be maintained four feet apart (also called a mosaic design).

  • Larger shade trees are acceptable, provided they are maintained and canopies are separated.

  • Avoid planting dry or woody plant species taller than 3 feet directly beneath any tree canopy.

  • Grass and ground cover should be maintained at a height of 4 feet or more under trees.

 

 

Zone 3:  100 Feet to 200 Feet from Residence or Other Structure 

The area 100 feet to 200 feet from a structure is often a mix of landscaped and native vegetation.  Landscaped and irrigated vegetation may be somewhat denser than Zone 2. 

 

  • In open areas away from trees, between 100 feet and 200 feet of structures, thin out bushes and separate into groups of shorter, younger, more succulent shrubs. Groupings should be spaced at least two times the height of the shrub patch.

  • Remove all dead branches and undergrowth from remaining bushes.

  • Under and around trees:  remove shrubs from within an area around the tree as shown below

    • When the tree is shorter than 6 feet high, all shrubs should be removed from within a distance of 3 feet from the tree’s drip line.

    • When a tree is taller than 6 feet high, all shrubs should be removed from within a distance of 6 feet from tree crown edge.

  • Please note that vegetation that is more than 200 feet from your residence or garage may be within 200 feet of a neighbor’s home and should be planned and maintained accordingly. 

  • Mowing or weed whacking is the preferred method to removing weeds.  Discing or clearing to bare earth can result in erosion and establishment of invasive annual grasses and weeds which can become flash fuel in fire season.

The following illustration provides a cross section of the four zones:  

 

Zone 4: Beyond 200 Feet from Residence or Other Structure  

Native vegetation can be retained in Zone 4, but should be maintained.  

Grass:  Mowing grass reduces its capacity to carry fire, limits the spread of a fire and reduces flame lengths.  Grass should be mowed to a maximum height of 4 inches.

 

  • Bushes:  Reducing bush height and creating groupings lessens the fire fuel volume and continuity, and reduces fire intensity and slows the spread of fire.  

 

The native brush in the canyons is commonly referred to as chaparral. It is one of California’s most extensive and characteristic wilderness types, dominating foothills and slopes. Dense, mature areas of chaparral should be thinned, separating individual plants or groups of plants and removing bottom branches and stems from the lowest one-third of the plant.  Dead wood inside plants should be removed.  Trimmings can be mulched to help keep down weeds -- Source: Native Plant Society – Fire Recovery Guide.  

  • Trees:  Mature trees provides shade and can reduce bush and perennial weed expansion and should be preserved where possible, provided that they are maintained and lower branches are pruned and bushes, weeds and vines are removed from under the canopy. 

  • “Volunteer” trees should be removed (these are trees that are not intentionally planted, but grow from natural germination).

  • Small Trees – 15 feet or smaller:

  • Remove the branches on the lower one-third of the tree, or treat the tree as a bush.

  • Large Trees – over 15 feet tall:

  • Branches that are lower than 8 feet from the ground should be removed

  • Trees near structures should have branches cut back at least 5 feet from the roof and at least 0 feet from chimneys

  • Palm Trees – Remove dead or dying palm fronds from trees and consider tree removal (since they are very flamboyant).

  • Bridle Trails:  Bridle trails should have a minimum area of 8 feet clear of vegetation.  Grasses and weeds should be mowed or cut to no taller than 3 inches.

  • Canyons and Slopes:  Homeowners are responsible for all of the vegetation on their property, including canyons.  If your home is located near a steep slope you should double the recommended management distances. 

 

The intent of fire fuel treatment is to reduce fire intensity and rate of fire spread.  Some areas may not be accessible due to terrain.  Unmanaged canyons can accelerate fire spread and can overwhelm fire suppression forces.  Heat moves up, which results in fires on a slope to pre-heat fuel and move more quickly than on flat areas.  This can result in greater fire severities and probability of ignition. 

 

Recommended maintenance for canyon vegetation includes:

  • Remove dead bushes, and any dead branches leaves and undergrowth on living plants

  • Reduce volume of vegetation and creating separation between plants or the height of brush and grass

  • Create separation between grasses and bushes, and bushes and trees to eliminate fuel ladders.

  • When choosing which plants to keep or remove, it is best to preserve less-flammable native species over exotic or woody-type or other more flammable plants.

 

There are three strategies for managing the canyons, you may mix strategies on a lot:

  • Shaded Fuel Break – trees with no shrubs, 

  • Mosaic Groupings – Clusters of similar vegetation with grass areas separating groupings of trees from groupings of shrubs

  • Shortened Shrubs – Only bushes, with no grass or trees 

 

Each of these canyon management approaches can be achieved with a variety of techniques, including hand work, animal grazing or machines. Care should be taken to not disturb the soil or remove plants in a way that could cause erosion.  Remove non-native species first then focus on thinning more flammable native species.

  • Driveways should have a 20-foot wide path and 16-foot overhead clearance to allow fire trucks can get to a house.  Ensure there is enough space for firefighting equipment to move onto your lot, as close as possible to your home.

 

  • Easements maintenance is the responsibility of homeowners.  RHCA may clear / maintain easements if the homeowner does not – and bill homeowners for the work.  

 

Perimeter easements vary in width and should remain clear of vegetation and structures. Easements vary in width and are set aside for specific uses outlined in the deed restrictions, including utilities, roads, bridle trails and parkways.  Easements also provide open space between lots which serve as fire breaks and access for emergency personnel.  

 

  • Fire Hydrants should be clearly visible and vegetation should be cleared 3 feet around the hydrant.

 

  • Utility Poles and Wires maintenance is the responsibility of Southern California Edison.  Edison which will trim trees and vegetation away from power poles, wires and structures.  If you see a potential hazard, contact Edison. 

 

Do not plant trees underneath power lines.  Keep 3 feet around base of power pole clear and avoid dense or woody plants under power lines. 

  • Roadsides and adjacent areas are the ingress and egress of our community. In a fire or other emergency, fallen trees can block roads and vegetation next to roadsides can hinder evacuation.  Maintenance of the roads and areas adjacent to the roads is vital for your personal safety for evacuations and for access for first responders.   

 

Roadside easements should be free of vegetation and structures. Except for mature trees, 10 feet on each side of the road, and a minimum vertical clearance of 16 feet, should be cleared of vegetation. Dirt, mulch or decomposed granite is ideal for areas adjacent to roadways to ensure access and visibility in a low-maintenance manner.

 

  • Vacant Lots should be maintained so they do not pose a fire risk to neighboring properties and meet the same standards as areas beyond 200 feet from a structure.  Weeds should be cut back annually and maintained so weeds do not grow taller than 6 inches.  Trees and tall bushes should have lower branches removed to avoid Fire Fuel Laddering.  Low bushes should be maintained away from trees and should be lowered to a maximum height of 3 feet.  

Areas 200 feet or more from structures, particularly canyons and slopes are very special, and can produce a significant fire risk in Rolling Hills.  Please pay close attention to the canyons and slopes – and contact the RHCA if you have any questions.

 

 

WHERE TO START AND WHEN TO DO MAINTENANCE

 

Where to Start

If you are just getting started, begin with the area closest to your home and create a Defensible Space.  The first 5 feet from a structure and the area 5 to 30 feet from a structure are the most important in determining the potential survival of a structure in a fire.

 

The primary cause of destruction of homes by wildfires is ignition from flying embers. Embers may come from burning vegetation around a home or from more distant fires by wind.  Planting low growing, higher moisture plants and reducing the volume of vegetation that is apt to burn decreases the fire intensity so a house is more likely to survive.

Please keep in mind the sooner you start the work, the better off your own property will be and your efforts will also be a benefit to the entire community.

 

 

RESPONSIBILITY

A property owner is responsible for maintaining defensible space for a distance of 200 feet from a structure, even if the structure is on a neighboring property.  If your home is near a property line, your neighbor may need to cut back vegetation on their property to maintain a Defensible Space for your home.  Please keep this in mind when designing landscaping for your property.

 

When to do Maintenance

Maintenance should be planned on an annual schedule – the recommended actions are:

  • Winter – Prune trees:  Winter is the best time to prune pine trees and eucalyptus.  Trimming in cooler weather reduces the spread of pests or disease in the trees.

 

  • Spring – Remove:  Schedule weed and brush removal in the Spring to take advantage of the RHCA’s and the City’s green waste pick up and to be ready for the Fire Department inspection which starts on June 1st each year.

 

  • Summer – Growth:  Let the plants grow – make sure to water adequately.

 

  • Fall – Plant:  Planting in the fall promotes strong root growth.  Plantings in the spring may require more frequent watering throughout the summer.

 

Other Maintenance Ideas

Comments on other maintenance approaches include:

  • Non-combustible Landscape Materials -- Within 5 feet of the home, rock, gravel, concrete and pavers are recommended.  Maintaining a noncombustible, ignition–resistant area immediately adjacent to the house and other structures is particularly important.  Ignition-resistant plant materials, such as irrigated, well-maintained lawn or flowers could be used. During a wildfire, embers may accumulate in this area, providing an ample source of ignition for combustible materials.

 

  • Discing, or turning up soil as a form of weed abatement is discouraged because invasive species such as mustard, thistle, tobacco, castor bean and native grasses often take hold in the newly turned soil.  Instead consider mowing in early spring, before plants flower and go to seed to interrupt the germination cycle. A second mowing may be needed after grasses cure in late spring to maintain the desired 3-foot height.

 

DO NOT remove vegetation down to the bare soil and do not destabilize hillsides by using heavy equipment.

 

  • Vegetation disposal:   Mowed native grasses may be left on site, twigs, branches and woodier debris may be composted, chipped and spread on site.  Chips should be spread so they are no deeper than 6 inches.  If they are spread along the roadsides, they may be no deeper than 2 inches.  If cut materials are not chipped or composted, they must be hauled from the site.  Branches and debris should never be disposed of in the canyons.

 

  • Hedges:  When planning landscaping, hedges should not be planted within 10 feet from the edge of a roadway or in an easement.  

 

Hedges should be maintained at a height no taller than deemed necessary for privacy or screening with a maximum height of 8 feet, unless a taller height is required by the RHCA or the City.  

Minimize hedge volume by trimming and spacing bushes to create a visual barrier and remain thin and wispy.  Remove dead material (branches and leaves) as part of regular maintenance.  

 

  • Wood Chips and Mulch -- Wood chips or mulch may be used in and around landscaped areas to retain moisture and reduce weeds.  In a University of Nevada study, composted wood chips possessed the least hazardous combustion characteristics and are better choices for use within five to 30 feet of the house. Since they are combustible materials and can transmit fire across this area, it is not recommended to use them in a widespread or continuous manner. Separate areas mulched with these materials with noncombustible and ignition–resistant materials such as concrete, gravel, rock and lawn. 

 

PICK OF THE RIGHT PLANTS

The types and characteristics of plants selected for the various landscape areas are important to meet the Fire Zone Characteristics, and to maintain the aesthetics of Rolling Hills.  Another key consideration is the moisture content of plants as high levels of plant moisture can lower fire risk and act as a heat sink, reducing the intensity and spread of fire.  Characteristics to consider include:

  • Bushes and Groundcover: Below is a list of characteristics of fire-resistant plants.  When selecting plants for your yard, look for these characteristics:

  • Store water in leaves or stems

  • Possess extensive deep root systems for controlling erosion

  • Maintain high moisture content with limited watering

  • Grow slowly and need little maintenance

  • Are low growing in form

  • Contain low levels of volatile oils

  • Have open, loose branching habit with low volume of total vegetation

 

  • Trees:  Before planting a new tree, consider the span and size the tree and confirm that it will meet spacing requirements when it is at full maturity. 

  • Mature trees should be maintained so they are cleared of dead material and remain structurally sound.  Avoid planting trees that are identified as highly flammable.  

  • The community appreciates the beauty and benefits mature trees provide for individual properties and the community at large.  Homeowners are encouraged to regularly maintain trees on their property so they are healthy, structurally sound and not overly heavy.

 

  • Planting to Avoid:  Avoid planting and consider removing highly flammable plants with these characteristics:

  • Retain large amounts of dead material within the plant

  • Produce a large volume of litter

  • Contain volatile substances such as:  oils, resins, wax or pitch

  • Examples of Highly Flammable Plants are:

 

  • Acacia

  • Cedar

  • Cypress

  • Eucalyptus

  • Juniper

  • Palm Trees

  • Pampas Gras

RESOURCES AND REFERENCES

The following information has been considered in preparation of the Strategies:

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