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Fire-resistant Landscaping Saved Homes in Los Alamos

LOS ALAMOS - The Bradbury House stands out like a sweet plum amid the ashes and charred debris from dozens of burned homes on the north side of Los Alamos.

The undamaged house - a historic landmark named after original owner Norris Bradbury, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory director - provides a model example of the property- saving and potentially life-saving benefits of fire-resistant landscaping.

"The current owner of the Bradbury House worked closely with the State Forestry Division, the U.S. Forest Service and New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service to thin the trees on the property and create appropriate landscaping to defend against fire," said Carlos Valdez, a horticulturist and 4-H agent with the Los Alamos County Extension office. "These precautions clearly saved this house from the flames that consumed so many other properties in this area."

The Bradbury House was featured on the June 25 edition of Southwest Yard & Garden, a weekly, half-hour TV program produced by NMSUs agricultural communications department.

"Southwest Yard & Garden focuses on gardening situations in the Southwest, such as fire prevention in our residential forests," said Curtis Smith, an Extension horticulturist based in Albuquerque and one of the program's hosts. "That's why the Bradbury home and others were featured on our show. We hope it will inspire others to learn to protect their homes."

Extension and State Forestry have worked together for at least 15 years to teach homeowners in Los Alamos landscaping and gardening techniques to protect against fire. As a result, some 200 to 300 families in the area have adopted fire-resistant landscaping, Valdez said.

"The fire never reached many of those houses, but at least a couple of dozen homes I've personally checked out that were clearly saved from the fire by defensive landscaping," he said.

Defensive landscaping requires thinning trees on properties in fire-endangered zones. Valdez and other horticulturists advise homeowners to cut down enough trees to leave a minimum of 10 to 12 feet between plants. Trees left standing should be at least 30 feet from the house. They also suggest cleaning up combustible debris from the ground and using fire-resistant vegetation, such as succulent plants and weil-mowed lawns, to act as a buffer zone.

Howard Cady, the current Bradbury House owner, had thinned surrounding trees to 50 to 60 per acre, creating open spaces around the house. In contrast, the nearby forest contained about 1,000 trees per acre when the Los Alamos fire spread.

"Because of the space created around the Bradbury House, the fire simply consumed ground debris on the property, rather than the trees,"said George Duda, an urban forester with the State Forestry Division. "The thinning technique allowed only a low-heat fire to bum on the property, and as a result, the trees there were not injured, but only suffered some charring of the bark at the bottom. The fire never even reached the tree crowns, much less the house." In sharp contrast, a dense stand of trees 30 feet from the home was completely consumed.

In another Los Alamos neighborhood known as North Community, homeowner George Sawyer said repeated Extension and State Forestry warnings to thin the trees on his property also saved his house from the flames that consumed many surrounding homes.

"We've been warned year after year about the need to keep a green area around the house, so we deliberately planted only a few trees and kept the lawn up," Sawyer said. He maintains a well-mowed and watered Kentucky bluegrass lawn, which acted as a buffer zone from a thick stand of ponderosa pine trees at the lawn's edge

Valdez thinks Sawyer's prudence saved the house. "There's so much moisture in a Kentucky bluegrass lawn that it just arrests the fire."

Despite the benefits of fire-resistant landscaping, many homeowners have refused to adopt such techniques because of concerns about chopping down trees.

"Many people have erroneous environmentalist concepts about not cutting down a single tree, and it's just dead wrong," Duda said. "Because of the density, the trees themselves are killing our forests. If we can't cut them down, then the fire will do it for us."

Valdez believes many more homeowners must adopt defensive landscaping to protect other fire-endangered zones. "This needs to be a community effort," he said. "Homeowners can work to protect their own properties, but it's also very important that their neighbors do it too. If you get a wildfire sweeping through a neighborhood where just one home is appropriately landscaped and it's surrounded by homes that aren't, there's nothing you can do."