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The Plant Man: landscape decisions to mitigate wildfire risk

By Steve Kawaratani

“What California right now is more destructive, larger fires burning at rates that we have historically never seen.” 

–Jonathan Cox, Cal Fire spokesperson

The Plant Man Steve Kawaratani

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Steve Kawaratani

Steve Kawaratani

My focus on work was interrupted by the insistent thrumming sound of helicopters above me. By the time I went outdoors, photo messages from Danielle Cavallucci and Jessica Gannon revealed billowing clouds of smoke just beyond Arch Beach Heights and Top of the World, and LBGOV announced a fire in Aliso and Wood Canyons. Seeing the rapidly increasing smoke billowing beyond the hills time-shifted me back to October 27, 1993, when fire destroyed more than 400 homes and scorched 16,000 acres.

The Plant Man Coastal Fire

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Photo by Danielle Cavallucci

Smoke billows from the Coastal Fire burning just over the Laguna Beach hillside

Laguna’s steep coastal foothills are vegetated by native plant communities, known as chaparral and coastal scrub. Prior to land use decisions and policies that seriously impacted the environment, by building onto the coastal hillsides, chaparral had evolved to burn every 30-150 years. This was a natural regime to reinvigorate itself and the interval was dependent on the frequency of lightning, which is the only natural source of wildfire ignition.

Scientists have conducted studies that conclude that increased fire danger is a result of drought and warmer temperatures due to climate change. Additional research has theorized and proven that the fire season may now be year-round, as the classic Santa Ana winds, high temperatures and low humidity were absent during the recent Coastal Fire.

The Plant Man dead vegetation

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Courtesy of Steve Kawaratani

Remove dead vegetation

Defensible space is a buffer created between your home and landscaped areas and the natural habitat that surround it. This space is essential to “slow or stop the spread of wildfire” and protects your house from catching fire; “either from embers, direct flame contact or radiant heat.” With much of Laguna in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, careful attention must be given to landscape decisions and direction from the Laguna Beach Fire Department.

New and major remodel projects in Laguna Beach require review by the Fire Department and Building Division and are carefully vetted to ensure that defensible space is provided through landscaping and fuel modification. If you have a mature landscape, there are a number of garden tasks that should be considered as the seasons shift into summer:

1. Remove all dead plants and vegetation from your property.

2. Keep tree branches at least 10 feet away from your home.

3. Trim trees regularly to separate canopies a minimum of 10 feet.

4. Remove vegetation under trees to prevent fires from climbing.

5. Clear vegetation away from combustible outdoor structures.

6. Remove dead or dry leaves from the garden, roof and rain gutters.

7. Keep mown lawns to a maximum of four inches.

We are challenged today to rethink where we live and how we build, and to maintain a stewardship of our environment and dwindling resources, during a period of rising temperatures and drought. To believe that our first responders can always heroically protect us is folly; just ask the homeowners of the 20 homes lost in Laguna Niguel. Let’s all do our part and keep Laguna safe. See you next time.

Steve Kawaratani has been a local guy for seven decades and likes to garden and drive the Baja Peninsula with Catharine and Loki. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 949.494.5141.