Does fire have an animus? Is it alive, cunning, aggressive? Have you ever faced an inferno as an intellectual adversary? Are you gauging if the beast will envelop you before you finish the firebreak, or if you will run like hell to escape its fiery grips? When you are called to play David to this unearthly Goliath, will it come after you, personally?

I was lucky enough to dance between the legs of a range fire last summer, and I''ll shamelessly admit that it was a kick. Protecting a house from fire was not. There is so much to lose that could never be replaced. You may think you''ll have time to gather your memories, but you won''t. They''ll billow to the heavens, mixed with the stench of burning tar and melted plastic.

You may envision a heroic battle to save your home, but there is only one way to win. You must know the soul of the flames. Because to answer the question, yes, fire does have an intellect. It will follow directions and obey orders. Its path is the one you lay, for it is your job to landscape in a way that will tame the beast when it bangs at your door. The right landscape will starve Goliath, bringing him to his knees. The wrong landscape will let him strike you like a match, feeding on your poor planning to imperil your neighbors.

Like many of you, I live in the rural margin, driving through chaparral and grasslands to get home. Like you, I''ve always wondered not if, but when it would burn. Fire is not invincible, and we can protect ourselves without fancy equipment, and without sacrifice to our idea of "landscape."

Fuel is the only limiting factor to fire. Fallen leaves, dried grass, brittle branches, these are the elements of alchemy, the ingredients of primordial soup that lie in wait for a spark to create life. Fortunately it is also the one factor you can control.

With a laugh, Kurt Lawrence of Drought Resistant Plants dismisses the idea of "fire retardant" plants. "Lots of plants will resist burning when they''re nice and healthy, but if they don''t get regular water, they are as susceptible to going up as anything that is dead."

"We live in the most flammable place on earth, the chaparral-urban interface," notes Owen Dell, a nationally recognized expert on landscaping in high fire hazard areas. After a Santa Barbara fire in 1977, Dell began to correlate the types of landscapes around houses with the amount of damage the houses suffered. He realized that the way plants were arranged in the landscape was more important than the types of plants used, and worked to develop a Zone system of landscaping. This system uses four bands of plantings to slow an approaching fire and to create a defensible space, an area to be used by fire crews when fighting to protect your home.

Zone Four (100-200 feet from the house), begins the fuel reduction strategy by clearing the native vegetation to isolated islands spaced roughly 20-40 feet apart with low grasses between. Plants in this zone will include your redwood, madrone, manzanita, ceanothus, toyon, coffeeberry, oaks and the like. Try to clear away the sages, chamise, buckwheat, coyote brush and artemesia.

Zone Three (60-100 feet from the house), "is a transition area between wild and tamed land," says Dell. This zone utilizes showy native and Mediterranean climate plants that don''t offer much fuel because they don''t grow very tall. These might include rockrose, Santolina, woolly yarrow, mokeyflower and other wildflowers.

Zone Two (30-60 feet from the house), is the greenbelt, planted with low-growing herbaceous ground covers with wet and salty leaves, designed to "bring a fire to a screeching halt before it reaches your house." Even these succulent plants can build up dead material under the green leaves, allowing a fire to smolder for days. Like everything else, groom your greenbelt at least annually.

Zone One (0-30 feet from house), is the area closest to the house, and while gravel beds would be the least flammable, we all deserve some green goodies in this prime planting space. Use good judgment here in selecting low fuel plants, in keeping them well-watered and well-pruned.

Maintenance is cheap insurance. A few weekends or a couple of hundred bucks may be enough to prune up the skirts of the trees, to clear out the centers of compact shrubs, and to weed-whip and mow the dried vegetation. Make sure your irrigation system is functioning properly, because healthy, well-watered plants of any kind are less likely to burn. Simply avoiding the headaches of dealing with insurance companies makes this a price well-worth paying.

Other Safety tips

1. Drip hose burns. Black plastic irrigation hoses will act as fire conduits, bringing flames quickly and efficiently deep into unburned vegetation. Try to run your lines parallel to the direction in which a fire might approach instead of perpendicular, or design it so there are few feeder lines leading from the perimeter of the yard.

2. Make sure your standpipes and hose bibs are turned off. Water pressure will be frustratingly low, and any additional draw will be all the more perilous.

3. Railroad ties are inextinguishable. They catch easily, and will continue to burn despite your most valiant efforts. Worse yet, few things are nastier than the stink of burning creosote. I am removing all ties from around my house and driveway.

4 Trim your tree skirts up to a height of at least three times the height of the fuel below, and no less than three feet up. I watched the flames pass through a grove of trees with hardly a smolder on the trunks, because the grass below was mowed and the lower tree branches were pruned up.

5. Make sure you have plenty of opportunity to bail out. If you''ve done your job right, you will get out of the way and return to an intact home. The firefighters will drive to your house and in a moment assess whether it is a "winner," one with a defensible space and worth defending, or a "loser." With the right landscape yours will be a winner. H&G

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