Defensible Space Spotlight: What to Put in Those First Five Feet

Being told what you should and shouldn’t do on your own property is a pain. We get it. One of the more puzzling things for a lot of people who live in places like Butte County, where defensible space is required to discourage the spread of wildfire, is being told to maintain an empty, 5-foot, ember-resistant, non-combustible zone around your home. 

We hope the following conversation, a transcription of a fire safety seminar that never happened, in which a fictional fire safety instructor addressed a fictional group of local homeowners, will be of help.

Instructor: Zone Zero of your defensible space plans should be a five-foot perimeter, all around your house, that contains nothing that can burn should a flying ember land there.

Homeowners: (Nods and murmurs of understanding)

Instructor: Any questions?

Homeowner: What CAN I put in that zone?

Instructor: Nothing. Just some gravel or a layer of some other type of rock; that way, if burning embers fall near your house, they can just exhaust themselves on the rock without raising flames close to your home.

Homeowner: Right. 

Homeowner: What exactly do you mean by “nothing?” What about low-lying plants?

Instructor: Plants burn and those five feet can be right under your eaves where embers can float up and ignite.

Homeowner: Plastic trash containers?

Instructor: No. They can burn, too.

Homeowner: Metal trash containers?

Instructor: Still no; they contain trash that can burn.

Homeowner: Firewood?

Instructor: Heck, no. It has “fire” in the name.

Homeowner: Lawn furniture?

Instructor: Not if it has parts that can burn.

Homeowner: Gas cans?

Instructor: Really?

Homeowner: What about metal garden tools?

Instructor: Wooden handles? 

Homeowner: No. They’re all metal.

Instructor: And you just want to leave them sitting out loose?

Homeowner: No. I keep ‘em in a box.

Instructor: Burnable box?

Homeowner: *sigh* Yep. What about a metal box?

Instructor: Just don’t leave it where you can trip over it. 

Homeowner: Can we do something decorative in that space?

Instructor: Like what?

Homeowner: Nice pavers?

Instructor: Sure.

Homeowner: Rock garden?

Instructor: Of course!

Homeowner: Concrete animals?

Instructor: A whole menagerie.

Homeowner: Ceramic garden gnomes?

Instructor: All you want.

Homeowner: I hate ceramic garden gnomes.

Instructor: Well, if there’s some kind of non-burning sculpture you DO like, you can put it in your five-foot zone. But honestly, a lot of people are very happy with picking out some nice-looking hardscape and just using that.

That five-foot perimeter we keep telling you about doesn’t have to look like a barren wasteland. We promise.

Start by clearing those five feet completely, and then let your imagination take over. Get some sample pebbles, rocks, or even small boulders to experiment with; think about how they might look on a bed of gravel or lake stone, for instance.  Perhaps you can shop around for metal, ceramic, clay, or concrete decorative pieces, and create a little strolling area beside your house.

Just resist the temptation to put even a little something flammable within five feet of your house…no matter how cute or fun it looks.