In the past five years, historically low rainfall and ongoing drought conditions have contributed to some of the worst fire seasons California has ever experienced. According to NASA Earth Observatory, “13 of California’s twenty most destructive wildfires on record occurred during this timeframe which collectively destroyed 40,000 homes, businesses, or other infrastructures.” A drier and hotter climate isn’t just increasing the frequency of wildfires in California, it makes them harder to fight due to their increased size and intensity.
It’s no surprise wildfires are of imminent concern for community managers, developers, and homeowners due to the combination of low precipitation, reduced snowpack, and extreme heat all contributing to increased amounts of dry vegetation. This makes fuel modification a hot topic and crucial part of community planning, development, and ongoing maintenance throughout California. The purpose of a fuel modification plan is to reduce the threat of wildfire by creating a fire-resistant divider between homes and adjacent open spaces or areas of natural plant life.
To shed light on fuel modification guidelines and how these plans affect developers, the community management industry, and homeowners, Keystone invited Juan Huerta of the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) to share his expertise and insights. Juan has been with the OCFA since 2016 and specializes in the Community Risk Reduction Department. While a frequent guest speaker and valuable resource for the community management industry, his primary duties include reviews of fuel modification plans and performing in-field inspections. Juan also currently serves on the Inspection Team, which conducts damage assessment on wildfire incidents.
Defining a State Fuel Modification Plan
A fuel modification plan is an approved, planned landscape design that reduces the threat of wildfire conditions at the time of development, by creating a fire-resistant divider between homes that are adjacent to areas of natural plant life. The plan consists of specific zones where plants are controlled to create spaces where fire crews can work while defending homes from an oncoming wildfire. When properly set up and taken care of, fuel modification zones also slow the wildfire spread, reduce its strength, deflect radiant heat, and help protect homes from direct flames.
Most fuel modification plans are created for subdivisions and commercial property during the construction phase. Plans are based on several factors: plant type, slope, climate, and wildfire history. In a homeowner’s association, oversight of the fuel modification zone is the duty of the association, as is the maintenance of the vegetation in common areas of the association. Homeowners are responsible for adhering to the approved fuel modification plan by maintaining the plants around their home, based on the original plan and design. Per Huerta, “The fuel modification plan typically details what the maintenance requirements are and when they should take place. The maintenance should begin sometime at the beginning of summer and then again near the start of fall when there’s going to be the highest risk of wildfire.”
In the absence of a fuel modification plan, a defensible space is a buffer created between a building on a property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surround it. This space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire and it helps protect homes and other structures from catching fire—either from embers, direct flame contact, or radiant heat. Proper defensible space also provides firefighters with a safe area to work in to defend people’s homes.
The specific plan for each community should be outlined in a community’s CC&Rs and serve as a guide for the community’s developer, landscape architects, board of directors, landscape committees, landscape maintenance vendors, community management team, and homeowners.
Determining Defensible Space
Because an ember can travel up to one mile, it’s critical to create and maintain a defensible space surrounding a structure which is its front-line defense against wildfire. Sometimes referred to as firescaping, creating and maintaining a defensible space around each home can dramatically increase the chance of a structure surviving a spreading wildfire and improves the safety of firefighters defending the property.
Unless a property falls within the exemption criteria, any home sold after July 1, 2021, located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone (FHSZ) within a local or state responsibility area will need documentation of a compliant defensible space inspection. For community associations with an adopted fuel modification plan, the collective homeowners association management team not only must be able to guide homeowners to be compliant within their property boundaries but also has responsibility for ensuring the fuel modification plan is properly maintained in the common areas and the perimeter of the community.
Ongoing Vegetation Management – A Quick Guide
The state has established firescaping zones defining the defensible space area and what is necessary for home protection, though not every fuel modification plan will have these established zones. There’s also additional guidance on proper vegetation management within specific distances of a structure helpful for homeowners to follow as well. Vegetation management is the controlling of plant material to prevent wildfire spread. The OCF has outlined the following Rs to remember to help reduce the threat.
- Remove all dead and dying plants within 100 feet of your home
- Identify and remove plants found on OCFA’s Undesirable Plant List
- Remove dry leaves, bark, and pine needles from the yard, roof, and rain gutters
- Prune and thin plants within 100 feet of your home, including plants within 100 feet of your neighbor’s home
- Provide 4 feet of vertical separation between shrub tops and lower tree branches to reduce “ladder fuels”
- Use Horizontal Separation Guidelines for plants over 2 feet in height (15 feet minimum or 3 times the tallest plant)
- Keep all shrubs within 10 feet of your home trimmed to 2 feet or lower
- Prune or remove plants near windows
- Remove all tree branches or plants within 10 feet of chimney outlets
- Move wood piles at least 30 feet from your home, or to the property line
- Keep annual grasses and weeds cut to 4 inches or less
- Replace fire-prone plants with fire-resistant and drought-tolerant plants (see the OCFA Planting Guide for recommendations)
- When putting in new plants, leave enough space for them to grow to mature size
- Use fire-resistant plants whenever possible
- Keep in mind that even plants listed on the planting guide must be maintained using spacing guidelines for both vertical and horizontal separation. Plant separation is an important part of reducing wildfire threats.
Communicating Allowances and Restrictions
Creating awareness for homeowners and business partners involved in making decisions for the community’s common area landscape is vital to protecting the community and its property values. The fuel modification plan should be understood by the board of directors and be readily accessible in the governing documents that were recorded at the time that the community plan was adopted.
Because climate conditions and the types of vegetation allowed near residential structures can change over time, knowing what the fuel modification plan entails for a specific parcel of land is important. Many homeowners and some contractors may not realize there’s a fuel modification plan in place so they may not be aware of what is allowable. They may put a bid on a project that may ultimately not be approved or worse yet, planted and against regulation.
Sweeping generalizations should be avoided as there are plenty of nuances that can vary the plan from one area to another within a community, and especially if attempting to compare to another community nearby. Furthermore, the age of a community will also affect the guidelines of the landscape plan and vegetation management efforts as the list of restricted plant species has become more stringent in recent years.
The CC&Rs should state which plants can and cannot be planted or present. In California, there is a lot of native plant material that grows naturally such as chaparral, buckwheat, California sagebrush, and even many varieties of pine and junipers, which are on the undesirable, invasive plant list and require mandatory removal. The OCFA provides an updated list of approved and undesirable plant species on its website for quick reference.
While the plants placed on the undesirable list have changed over the years, fire authorities cannot require an HOA to revise its governing documents. For example, a community built 20 years ago may currently have a palm species growing throughout because they weren’t restricted at that time. However, new communities being planned cannot plant the same species if it is now on the wildfire undesirable list.
Common Problems Regarding Fuel Modification
One of the biggest errors found in annual fire inspections is the fuel modification areas are not being maintained at the full distance. This can sometimes be the result of the landscaping company not having access to or referring to the fuel modification plan.
Another typical scenario is when a turnover occurs in the landscape management vendor and the new team automatically assumes the defensible spaces have been maintained to the appropriate distance without verifying against the plans. Keeping current on annual inspections will help to ensure the fuel modifications are implemented as originally designed.
Over the past several years, the responsibility has been left to homeowners association. The OCFA supports a partnership with HOAs and community association managers, boards of directors, and landscape companies to work together to create a safe environment.
Overall, the HOA should be familiar with the fuel modification zones and defensible space areas and understand the requirements needed to create a regular maintenance schedule. To ensure the HOA assets are protected from the unnecessary spread of fire, review fuel modification plans and reach out to landscape professionals for guidance.
Though, the OCFA is always available to assist and provide resources to conduct annual inspections and ensure mitigation efforts are in place. Plus, their website provides extensive information, videos, and safety flyers to keep homeowners up to date.
Keystone is here to communicate all pertinent safety information and any details that will help protect property values. For more information about how we can facilitate the fuel modification process for your community, contact us today to get the conversation started.