First came the wildfires, then the questions.
Providence aside, why had certain neighborhoods and houses been spared in the firestorms that ravaged Southern California? What had the builders or landscapers done that encouraged flames to stop in their tracks or travel other paths?
Experts have praised architectural modifications, such as the elimination of eaves, and the use of noncombustible materials in structures and for roofing. They also say, however, that the most valuable insurance just might be smart garden design and maintenance.
Lest one succumb to stereotypes, it must be said that being smart need not mean sacrificing beauty.
Way up high on a scrub-dotted hill in Pasadena, a Modernist aerie with sweeping views rises softly from the land. The home and its gardens, both designed with fire safety in mind, merge gently into the surrounding slope.
There is little conflict between the stucco- and glass-walled building, the designed landscape and the natural space they occupy. The 1.6-acre site has been tamed, not dominated. Sounds of water and wind predominate. Small lizards scurry over stones. Browsing deer find clear passage here. On this knoll, seasonal changes are unmistakable.
This harmony is intentional. The 4,200-square-foot home — designed by the late Don Hensman, a key figure in the evolution of Modernist architecture — maximizes the isolated yet intimate location and its ravishing vistas. Four years ago, as the structure neared completion, landscape architect Rick Fisher of Glendora-based Toyon Design unified the living spaces and woodworking studio with the landscape.
The homeowners, Alex and Jaylene Moseley, have an enduring relationship with Fisher, who has landscaped numerous commercial buildings overseen by Jaylene's real estate development firm. He also designed the gardens at their former residence on a very different site, closer to sea level in a shaded oak woodland in San Marino.
In crafting the Moseleys' new lofty landscape above the Rose Bowl, Fisher retained most of the native plants and created a series of four fire-wise zones radiating away from the structure. He added only fire-resistive plants — permanent, well rooted and low growing, with tough water-storing foliage — in earthy tones that reflect the natural environment.
Color is intrinsic to the calming aura here. The warm gray and rust shades of the building were inspired by markings in the large Tres Rios pavers embroidered into the paths. Leaf and flower colors were borrowed from the native landscape.
Brisbane box and strawberry trees echo the tones of laurel sumac, toyon, oak and manzanita. Gray-green catnip and rosemary complement the sages. Little bulbines, with finger-like foliage and pale persimmon blossoms, mimic golden-orange monkey flowers that swaddle the hillside each spring.
Fisher placed low but moist plantings in Zone 1, closest to the house, ringed by swaths of noncombustible hardscape (unplanted sections of the garden covered by pavers and so forth) and progressively larger and less thirsty flora.
Near the home, penstemon, rockrose, buckwheat, sedge and other petite perennials and grasses offer little fuel but plenty of color, texture and fragrance.
Areas of hardscape function as firebreaks on all sides of the building within the "defensible zone." A sizable motor court assures ample space for firefighter access, equipment and easy turnaround, should it be needed.
The inner courtyard encloses a pool fed by a rushing curtain of water. Compact clusters of Phormium 'Dazzler' and a glass-green native sedge, Carex tumulicola, explode from pocketed beds. Where foot traffic flows across the floor of irregular paving stones, tiny-leafed Dymondia margaretae and blue-star creeper fill the spaces.
A path to the east beckons strollers though a darkened alcove, then into the light to a flat overlook with a simple, semicircular fountain, and beyond to the wilder landscape. There, Alex Moseley explains, a lopsided strawberry tree is pruned out of shape regularly by deer.
On the north side facing the forested mountains, a small patio overlooks the Rose Bowl. It is edged with typical Zone 2 plants, including prostrate perennials and densely rooted ground covers. These earth-huggers, including a Grevillea 'Wakiti Sunrise,' with spidery orange-red blossoms, and magenta species geraniums, prevent erosion and can slow the movement of a surging fire. They also provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.
In Zone 3, on the first rung of flats and slopes, Fisher added drifts of short, drought-tolerant, aromatic plants with spreading roots and purple flowers. Among them: Salvia 'Bee's Bliss,' Lavandula 'Goodwin Creek,' Origanum 'Hopley's Purple' and two kinds of trailing rosemary, 'Huntington Carpet' and 'Ken Taylor.'
Bank plantings on all surrounding slopes and up the long, long driveway are blanketed with sages, manzanita and other squat, mounding shrubs.
Fisher avoids using ice plant and other succulents on sloping land. "They're not deep-rooted, and they're heavy," he says. After heavy storms, bloated sheets of ice plant succumb to gravity and slide downward, taking soil with them.
In Zone 4, farthest from the house, laurel sumac, toyon, fuchsia-flowering gooseberry and other shrubby natives were left in place but judiciously pruned to reduce their volume without disturbing their deep, soil-stabilizing root systems.
"These plants perform many essential functions, including erosion control, watershed protection and food and cover for wildlife, while retaining the unique character and beauty of the land," says Melanie Baer-Keeley, a horticultural consultant and restoration specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
"It is possible to have a fire-safe landscape with nothing but native plants," says Baer-Keeley, who is developing educational materials on fire-safe landscaping for Sierra foothill residents.
Fisher adheres to his own doctrine that "flame height is directly proportionate to fuel height, and flame intensity is directly proportionate to fuel density."
He added a few small trees, including Arbutus 'Marina' with exquisite red bark like its manzanita cousins, and more native oaks, but all are sparsely planted.
The tallest trees, a light smattering of lemon gums (Eucalyptus citriodora) were added, says Fisher, to "break up the horizontal lines of the house from below." Smooth-trunked with small bony crowns, they were planted in open space at great distances from the house because they are more easily ignited.
On the outskirts of the Moseley acreage, native trees and shrubby outcroppings are widely separated. (To restrict fire movement, fire officials recommend a minimum span of 10 to 20 feet.) Where they grow thickly, some plants are lopped back to ground level. Unfazed, they regrow from stumps, an attribute common to plants from fire-prone regions.
Plus, Fisher says, "every two years, the low natives — sages, monkey flower, buckwheat and deerweed — are mowed down and allowed to re-sprout. Excess leaf litter, dry grasses and spent weeds, all highly flammable, are removed occasionally."
Some of the fallen leaves, though, are left under trees and shrubs, as a 2- to 3-inch layer provides erosion control and soil enrichment.
Plants near the house receive frequent irrigation most of the year, and drought-tolerant natives are bolstered by occasional deep soaks during the dry season.
On this promontory, wisdom has been put in action, but that is not always the case elsewhere.
In a year or two, the burned-out neighborhoods of this autumn's fires will be resurrected. And, no doubt, as time goes by, more people will settle in these beautiful and perilous spaces.
That frustrates Owen Dell, a Santa Barbara landscape architect responsible for the first demonstration garden devoted to fire-safe landscaping.
"I've been teaching and promoting these ideas for 20 years, but few people take them seriously," Dell says. "They only get interested after there's a huge fire and homes and lives are lost."
According to experts, it's inevitable that fire will again lick the perimeter of the Moseleys' hill, as it has in the past. When it does, though, the couple know that their home and landscape are well-prepared.
Asked if he would ever want to leave this place, this sanctuary in the sky, and travel down the hill, Alex Moseley answers, "I don't." * (Begin Text of Infobox) Cultivating fire safety
Some of the best places to find ideas about fire-safe landscaping that is beautiful and water-efficient are the Internet and demonstration gardens.
On the Web: http://www.firewise.org , sponsored by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program, features news, resources, publications.
http://www.owendell.com/writings.html , from the firm County Landscape & Design, has a helpful fire-scaping checklist.
http://www.laspilitas.com/classes Las Pilitas Wholesale Nursery.
Demonstration gardens: Santa Barbara Firescape Demonstration Garden, Mission Ridge Road and Stanwood Drive, (805) 965-5254
Elfin Forest Fire Safe Garden, 20223 Elfin Forest Road, Escondido, (800) 622-7604
Quail Botanical Gardens, 230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas, (760) 436-3036
Fire-resistive plants: Short sages, manzanitas and coyote brush; prostrate rosemary; toyon; oak; yarrow; penstemon.
Plants to avoid: Pine, acacia, juniper, bougainvillea, eucalyptus, chamise, sagebrush.