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How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

Immediately after the Lilac Fire, Dr. Camille Newton of Bonsall, CA, texted me that eight homes on her street had been destroyed, yet hers was unharmed. “Succulents saved the day,” she said. 

Such reports aren’t unprecedented. Suzy Schaefer’s succulent garden in Rancho Santa Fe “saved our home,” she told me (and national media) after the Witch Creek Fire. I had heard of others as well. Even so, I was skeptical. True, succulents tend to cook rather than burn and don’t transmit flames. But wildfire is so intense it melts metal and glass. What chance does any plant have?

Moreover, wildfires are wind-driven. A barricade of fleshy plants might halt a brush fire, but what about flying, flaming embers? And isn’t it possible that what appears to be salvation-by-succulents is merely the capricious way wildfire skips houses?

Even so, Dr. Newton, a geriatrician who often deals with life-and-death situations, is no sensationalist. She was calm, matter-of-fact, and had photos for proof.

Doubtless you know that I’m a big champion of succulents, but what you may not know is I’m also a journalist. I’m aware of how emotion and wishful thinking can cloud a reporter’s judgment. Yet what I saw when I went to Camille’s truly amazed me.

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

Above: News photo of the house next door to Camille’s during last week’s Lilac Fire in Bonsall, CA. Below: Same property after the fire. 

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

Next door, where a home had been reduced to ash and charred appliances, the only green left in the yard was an Agave vilmoriniana with singed leaves. Along the driveway were a former fence of cylindrical wooden posts that had burned down into the ground, and black sticks—former ornamental shrubs—flattened by fire and wind.

So, what IS it about succulents that makes them…dare I say it…fireproof?

Clearly more research is needed, and YOU can help: If you know of a wildfire-burned home that had succulents planted so densely (like Camille’s) that they should have served as a firebreak, yet they didn’t, please tell me. Tens of thousands of hopeful California homeowners (myself among them) need to know: Are Camille’s and Suzy’s experiences merely luck, or did succulents really save their homes?

What I can say with certainty is that planting a swath of moisture-rich, fleshy-leaved plants is smart if you live in a mild, arid region plagued by drought and wildfire. Readily available agaves, aeoniums, elephant’s food, aloes, jade, and ironically-named ‘Sticks on Fire’ propagate easily from pups and cuttings, are low-water and low-maintenance, and when combined, create a gorgeous garden. If it also serves as a firebreak, well—as I told a KFMB-TV reporter—that’s certainly icing on the cake.

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

Above: Camille and I talked about firescaping on CBS. 

Five days after the Lilac Fire ripped through her neighborhood, I visited Camille and documented her story with my camera and camcorder. Of all the videos I’ve made (my YouTube channel now has 200+ with over 3,000,000 views) this one is, IMHO, by far the most important.

How Succulents Protected a Home from Wildfire

There’s plenty more that homeowners need to know in order to create a firewise landscape. Topics I’ll address in future newsletters, YouTube videos, and articles include: How to create a succulent garden like Camille’s that’s broad and dense enough to serve as a firebreak. How to obtain my Top Six Firewise Succulents and start them from cuttings. Also, why Camille’s succulents are especially lush and vibrant. (I suspect it’s her free-and-abundant soil amendment, composted horse manure, atop a substrate of decomposed granite.)

I urge you to watch my two videos in which Camille shares her story and garden. Also in my video, Do Succulents Burn? I test jade plant, aeoniums, paddle cactus and more by tossing them in a gas fire pit. Even if you don’t live with the threat of wildfire or where succulents can grow outdoors year-round, I promise you’ll be entertained, fascinated…and, like me, amazed.

Ten years earlier, in Oct. 2007, the succulent garden on the cover of Designing with Succulents (first edition) also “saved” a Rancho Santa Fe home. As in Camille’s situation, neighboring houses burned to the ground. [Read more]

The garden on the cover of the first edition of Designing with Succulents helped protect the home in 2007. [Read more] 

Related info on this site:

View my 6-minute video: Do Succulents Burn? Compare the combustibility of jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and paddle cactus to branches cut from bamboo and oak trees. 

Note: The horrific CA wildfires of 2017 are a vivid reminder of when my husband and I and our two dogs were evacuated in 2007. During three awful days, we didn’t know if we’d have a home to return to. Using succulents as firebreak plants can help protect properties in wildfire-prone areas, but in no way do I want to imply that succulents are THE answer, nor (God forbid) do I want to try to capitalize on others’ suffering. My sympathy and prayers are with the victims. ~ Debra Lee Baldwin

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Debra’s Top Six Firewise Succulents

My top six firewise succulents are quite common and start easily from cuttings. If you live in a fire-prone, backcountry area, consider them one more weapon in your arsenal against wildfire by planting them around your property’s perimeter.

View my 6-minute video: Do Succulents Burn? Compare the combustibility of jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and paddle cactus to branches cut from bamboo and oak trees.

In combination, these readily available succulents make a beautiful, low-water landscape. This garden, for example, originated entirely from cuttings:

  • Opuntia (paddle cactus), the thicker the better. If you wince at the thought of having cactus in your garden, look for spineless or near-spineless varieties. They do exist, and they don’t draw blood. Those rounded, upright pads make a nice counterpoint to more finely textured plants, succulent and otherwise.
  • Aloes. Mound-forming Aloe arborescens is the heroic succulent that “saved” the home of Rob and Suzy Schaefer during the devastating wildfires of 2007. It sends up orange-red, torchlike flower spikes in midwinter.
  • Aeoniums. There are numerous varieties of these rosette succulents. The best ones for fire resistance are multi-branching.
  • Crassulas. Plain old green jade didn’t burn during the wildfire that threatened the Schaefer home, but rather it cooked, and like the aloes, its leaves turned putty-colored and collapsed. If you think jade is boring, you may not be aware of its many cultivars. Some are striped cream-and-green; turn yellow-orange-red when grown in full sun; have silvery-gray leaves rimmed with red; or have intriguing tubular or wavy leaves.
  • Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ — Highly ornamental with bright orange, upright stems, this makes an excellent fire barrier, to 7 feet in height. Downsides are it’s frost tender and its milky sap is caustic.

    Above: Photo by homeowner Camille Newton of her firebreak garden immediately after the 2017 Lilac Fire. Orange ‘Sticks on Fire’ are prominent. Burgundy rosettes at middle right are aeoniums. Watch my “Succulents as Firebreak” video of Camille’s garden.

     

  • Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) is shrub-like, and yes, elephants really do eat it in South Africa. In fact, the plant benefits from being stomped on because pieces root readily. The variegated variety is less vigorous and more ornamental than the common green species.


Go to my Firewise Landscaping page 

In Designing with Succulents (2nd edition, p. 107), I tell how my husband and I were evacuated, and how the succulent garden on the cover of the book’s first edition “saved” a home in Rancho Santa Fe. Ten years later, during the 2017 Lilac Fire, Camille Newton (whose garden in Bonsall, CA is on page 51 of the 2nd edition) had a similar experience [read more].  See Camille and me on TV. 

From my Los Angeles Times article, “Did Succulents Save Her Home?” ~ “SUCCULENTS have soared in popularity recently because they’re drought-tolerant, easy-care and just plain cool to look at, and now there’s another compelling reason to grow them: They’re fire-retardant. During last month’s wildfires, succulents — which by definition store water in plump leaves and stems — apparently stopped a blaze in its tracks…” [Read more]