By Susan Carter, CSU Extension Tri River Area, Horticulture and Natural Resource Agent
I live in Fruita where the Pine Gulch Fire had the title of the largest Colorado fire until the Cameron Peak Fire exceeded it. Having to respond to the effects of fire in many ways has taught me a lot this year. Pardon me if I go off the plant topic a little on and off in this blog, but I hope you will appreciate it.
During our fire I had many mornings where the garden covered in ash. I learned that the ash was very high pH, coming in around 11! Seven is neutral and in Western Colorado it is common for our alkaline soils to be a pH of 8. So 11 is very high. So hosing or blowing off the ash so the plants would not be harmed by a loss of photosynthesis and the ash is a good idea. I did end up with one squash plant that suffered. If your walkways and other hard surfaces are covered with ash, sweep them off and throw it away. Do NOT add it to the garden. This is especially dangerous if any structures burned as then you don’t know what might be in the ash.
During Pine Gulch fire I got a question about animals, so here is the information I got from some wonderful CSU experts. Keep your pets and backyard chickens and other animals inside as much as possible. Clean their water often as ash can mess up their digestive systems. Animals don’t need to be breathing the air any more than we do. Try to watch your local air quality and do your landscaping and gardening when the air quality is not so bad.
The drought, fire and ash got me thinking about defensible space and being ready for an emergency. My husband is a retired firefighter EMT of 21 years and fought many wildfires. So we have items in case of emergency in our car, etc... Make part of your gardening and landscaping thinking and acting to prevent fires around your property. In this time of drought, wildfires could happen ANYWHERE. We should all be prepared. https://www.ready.gov/
So how can you be prepared in the garden and landscape? Well, I would start by removing any dead plants. Deadhead flowers (removing flower stalks that are no longer blooming) as often these dry out. Plus this will put my energy back in the root system of perennials and shrubs instead of working on producing seeds. Remove leaf litter that is close to the house or in the gutters. It just takes one ember to land in a crook of the house where there is debris and a fire starts. You could start a compost pile away from the house to put plant debris. Use rock mulch or other materials like flagstone, pavers, or other non-combustible materials closest to the house. Keep wood piles and other wood products or structures away from the house. Ideally a zone of lower growing, high-moderate water loving plants would be closer to your house as long as it does not affect your foundation.
To create defensible space, height should increase as you move away from the house.
See this website for more detailed information on Defensible Space.
Did you know that there are plants that are more fire resistant? Of course some of that depends on drought and how much moisture is in the plants. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/natural-resources/firewise-plant-materials-6-305/ . Choose plants that do not produce a lot of litter under them. Aspen trees would be a good high altitude garden choice over 5000 plus feet elevation, I personally recommend even higher like 6-7000’ as aspen do not do well in the low Valley’s heat and clay soil.
Pinyon pine with twig or bark beetle damage, picture from Tri River AreaI have been getting many calls about older trees not doing well. For those of us in town with irrigation, give your trees and landscape a really good drink before the irrigation goes off. If you live on a large properties or up in the mountains, typically there is not a lot you can do other than depending on Mother Nature for moisture. But could you water one or a few favorite or most important trees? If they are mature established trees, water out twice their height or spread and give them a deep soak once a month to a depth of 12-18”. This will keep them vigorous enough to help ward of insects like bark beetles and borers. Some trees, like pinion pines, might need some insecticide treatments to prevent ips beetle from investing. When there are epidemics of insects and there is prolonged drought, the trees are very susceptible to attack. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/ips-beetles-5-558/
For trees with lower dead limbs, removing them can decrease fire ladder potential and helps the tree to heal. Prune evergreens when dormant to prevent attracting insects like bark beetles and borers. Make sure you use proper pruning techniques and cut outside the bark ridge and bark collar. For bigger limbs use the three cut method to prevent the limb from breaking and causing trunk damage. https://static.colostate.edu/client-files/csfs/pdfs/613.pdf Turn these limbs into chips or stack in a wood pile, again away from your structures. If the plants are diseased or insect infested follow appropriate protocol for that particular issue to dispose of or prevent any spread of issues.
I hate to say it but I am hoping for an earlier winter with lots of moisture to help with the fires and the drought. We can only do, what we can do the rest is up to Mother Nature.