• Fire and manzanita myths

    by  • October 18, 2012 • Fall, landscaping, Plant Profiles, Sierra Foothills • 12 Comments

    Musclular shaped branches of the stately manzanita

    Musclular shaped branches of the stately manzanita.   Photo by Ken Wyatt

    It is a commonly heard in casual remarks on gardening topics and maintaining a landscape in the Sierra Foothills that Manzanita and other chaparral plants must be cut down and removed because they are so very flammable.

    Yes, it is important to clear 100 feet of defensible space around your home, and yes, Manzanita can act as a ladder fuel, in other words, if left too close to taller trees, fire can jump from the ground up, using medium sized plants as ‘ladders.’

    Arctostaphylos viscida blooms, tiny vase-shaped

    Arctostaphylos viscida blooms, tiny vase-shaped

    However, yes, it is possible to enjoy growing and caring for your beautiful native manzanitas.  The gorgeous burnished red of the bark, the delicate pale pink flower cluster and the flat round grey-green leaves of our native Arctostaphylos viscida or Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita can be enjoyed under the proper conditions.  If left in the garden as accent plants such as the one in the photo, it can be as safe as any plant or tree in the garden. If dead branches are removed, that’s even better.

    There are several reputable organizations of professionals that would change the prevalent conception that chaparral plants such as manzanita and our bear clover are indeed more flammable than other plants.

    Red berries of the native Manzanita

    Red berries of the native Manzanita

    According to Neil McDougald, former Coarsegold Resource Conservation District Director, “The concept of fireproof’ plants is essentially a myth for the Sierra Foothills. Almost all plants will burn given the right conditions. Referring to a plant as “firesafe” means that it tends not to be a significant fuel source by itself.    Certain plants may be a poor fuel source because they don’t contain a lot of woody material, or they tend to grow in low densities, or their chemical composition actually resists heat and combustion.

    Peeling manzanita bark

    Peeling manzanita bark.   Photo by Ken Wyatt

    Besides those specific characteristics, one must also consider two other factors: the distribution and the maintenance of the plants. A good example is manzanita. While most people cringe at the thought of a fire ripping through a manzanita thicket, the shrub itself is actually fire resistant. The key is to keep a wide distribution between individual plants and to regularly remove the dead material that accumulates on the plant. A healthy, green manzanita, with five to six feet of clearance around it and no dead branches is very likely to survive a low to moderate intensity fire. Some low-growing species of manzanita are recommended because of their drought tolerance and fire resistance.”

    Arctostaphylos viscida Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita

    Arctostaphylos viscida Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita

    A second quote is from the California Chaparral Institute in answer to the myth that Chaparral plants are full of resinous chemicals which make them more flammable than any other plant.

    They say, “Chaparral plant species are NOT “oozing combustible resins” or “born” to burn.”

    “Such comments are frequently seen in articles about fires in chaparral, giving the impression that the reason chaparral shrubs are so flammable is primarily due to the presence of flammable chemicals, waxes, or oils in their leaves and stems. While it is true some chaparral plant species (and many other drought-tolerant plants including pines) have aromatic chemicals within their tissues, this does not mean that’s why they ignite or burn so hot when they do. Chaparral plants ignite and burn hot when the environmental conditions are right, namely high temperature, low humidity, and low fuel moistures (the amount of moisture in the plant). In addition, the leaves and stems on many chaparral shrubs are quite small, creating perfect burning conditions – a lot of surface area and space for oxygen. Chaparral shrubs burn so easily because they provide fine, dry fuels during drought conditions. While plant chemicals are certainly involved in the burning process, they do not really make a significant contribution to the flammability of chaparral in general. This also explains why it is usually quite difficult to get chaparral to burn in the spring. There’s too much moisture in the plants. If “oozing combustible resins”* were the main cause of flammability, chaparral would burn easily during any season.”

    ”*The hyperbolic “oozing” quote came from the July 2008 issue of National Geographic. Being “born to burn” was a comment made by a member of the San Diego Board of Supervisors when justifying the need to conduct large scale prescribed burn programs in the back country.”

    Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita as a dramatic accent tree

    Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita as a dramatic accent tree

    These two statements are confirmed by Sabrina L. Drill  for a third agency, The California Native Plant Society saying in a 2010 report, “Another myth is that most California native plants are intrinsically highly flammable, and that chaparral and coastal sage systems require frequent fire to be healthy. While several Southern California natives do possess characteristics that make them fire-prone, many are actually highly resistant and tolerant of fire and recover quickly after a wildfire, making them excellent choices for a fire-safe landscape.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    12 Responses to Fire and manzanita myths

    1. October 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      It’s nice to have conformation that my stubborn opinion that anything will burn, even ice plant given the right conditions, is held by others. When it comes to planting, I think how and where plants are arranged affect fire behavior more than the species of plant per se. We can’t clear 100′ here because if we did, our house would likely end up under a wall of mud in the winter due to erosion. I’ve been planting some of the Manzanitas here, even relatively close to the house, because many are also great for erosion control. Quite honestly, I think erosion here is an even more real threat that the threat of fire most days anyway.

      • October 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm

        You know, Clare, I could just cry when I hear people say they cut down all their native trees and manzanita and replace them with ornamental pear,junipers, oleanders, coastal sequoias and even pampas grass! We already live in such a naturally beautiful area and not many appreciate the native plants, calling them ‘weeds’ and the dismissive ‘brush.’

        I hope I can help change one mind about our beautiful manzanita.

    2. October 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

      It’s too bad that so many still consider that the chaparral was put there to burn down your house. (That comment from one of our County Supervisors is too indicative of the popular misconception.) Thanks for your sane comments and great photos. I think the manzanita makes a great symbol of some of the plant communities at risk for unnecessary eradication, the way dolphins make great ambassadors for the less charismatic members of the ocean community.

    3. October 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Good post. I’m doing a design right now that has to emphasize defensible space, so I’ve been going through the lists of plants and practices recently. It’s nice to see someone sticking up for the manzanitas, that it’s more a case of how the plant is used and maintained and how fire behaves, rather than the more sensationalist ‘Chaparral Burns!’ conception that is out there.

      • October 26, 2012 at 10:17 am

        Thanks, James. I think the myth that chapparral plants are filled with fire exploding resinous oils will be dispelled….even Sunset magazine which used to promote this myths has now stated that all plants will burn if a fire is hot enough and the plant spacing is the key in the garden. Ken Wyatt is my brother and a couple photos are his, taken one foggy October morning on the place. Manzanita is one photogenic plant!

    4. October 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks, Ryan,..good luck with your design. I think the shape and habit of a plant may determine how fast,…relatively that a plant will burn. Brushy, thin branched stems would burn quicker, like tinder, than a mat of thick fleshy ice plant, possibly would.
      I should have mentioned in the post that in 2001,fire did burn slowly right through our entire property,…not yet hot enough to climb further than 2 feet up into the trees, burned all the grass and left us with a blackened but definitely ‘brushed out’ acreage. Had it been fiercely hot, I imagine all would have burned as it did a half mile away.

    5. May 3, 2013 at 4:22 am

      Good for you — I don’t have a very fire safe garden as yet and maybe never will but I have a less fireprone garden than it was when I got here. I like Bert Wilson’s advice at Las Pilitas nursery – laspilitas.com – he’s an ex firefighter and his detailed advice is experience based. The thing I haven’t done is to irrigate enough – as you say, if the plants are not tinder dry, they are less likely to burn. And also reducing fuel load of dead material and old wood and junk and etc! helps a lot. Each summer after the birds are done nesting I go out and do thinning and clearing dead stuff within about 100 feet of the house. Though I forget that the santa ana winds that are from the inland side and dry — and that are reputed to bring fire will come up the lusher north side of the property and I haven’t been so diligent on that side as it doesn’t LOOK so fire prone! It is a worry and a dilemma in so many ways, being ready for a wildfire. As I write, there is a wildfire raging in SoCal.

    6. JoAnn
      July 1, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      I found your website this evening by accident. I spent a great deal of time around North Fork and in the Bass Lake Annex, where my Father, Gene Papenhausen built quite a number of custom homes.

      You have a wonder description of this plant. I wonder if you are aware of the pods exploding during a certain time of the year? This is how the seeds are scattered over large areas during this explosion process.

      I definitely miss that entire area of my youth. Do you know Eddie Pokinpaugh – I know that he was Chief of the local Indian Tribe. My Husband and he went to high school together and we spent some wonderful times together at their home in North Fork. I lost my Husband Chuck two years ago to MRSA.

      JoAnn Trammell

      • Sue Langley
        July 4, 2014 at 8:12 am

        How nice that you found my blog,…I hope it can bring back some good memories.

        I wonder if you’re thinking of the bush lupine seeds which you ‘explode’ to scatter widely. Manzanita seeds drop to the ground as the tiny ‘fruits’ rot and then germinate there, especially after becoming scarified by fire.

        I don’t know your friend, but you may be interested in this post on The Peckinpaugh family in our area and ‘their’ mountain.

        • JoAnn
          July 4, 2014 at 3:05 pm

          Thank you for your reply. My Mother insisted it was the Manzanita Tree exploding their pods on her property. But who knows for sure?

          Thank you for you response and for the website to check out. I should have kept my parents property in the annex. Thought it would be too hard to manage from So. California.

          I look forward to reading your blogs.

          Thanks again.

          JoAnn Trammell

        • Debby
          January 10, 2016 at 1:38 pm

          Your post was very informative. I live on 6 acres in Lake Co. Where we just experienced the devastating Valley Fire four months ago this coming Tuesday. Our property, and the nearly 10,000 acres that we back up to, had been covered in chamise, lilac, and manzanita. Unfortunately all of the absolutely worst conditions were all lined up: Several years of drought and severe high winds. My home is only standing while 42 of my 50 neighbors lost everything because we had just cut down 10 Grey Pines and cleared the manzanita 100 feet from our home. Our delima now, and my question for you is, do we remove the manzanitas that burned? After 4 months, NOTHING is sprouting around even one tree though there are new sprouts on the ground from the oaks and unfortunately the chamise that was the fire tinder to help burn what had once been beautiful manzanitas. The fire was so hot that I do not see one berry or leaf on the ground, only black earth. The trees for the most part are merely black sticks coming up from the ground reminiscent of a Halloween scene. VERY DEPRESSING! For our sanity, we need to begin replanting, to get some green back. There isn’t even any grass growing where once there was a manzanita Forrest. Is there any hope that they will regrow from the tops, or should we cut the sticks that had once been trees. We have finally been blessed with 6 inches of rain since the fire. This appears to have made them a bit more pliable. Originally, right after the fire, it was impossible to bend or break even the smallest branch or twig. It was as strong as steel! I hope you can give me some advice. We have cut down some right near the house, but we still have easily more than 100 we need advice on what to do. Is there any hope for those trees that have leaves that are brown and crunchy? We have 5 or so that have burned on one side and have green on the other. I am assuming they will survive, if they are cleaned up of the burned parts. Looking forward to your response.

    7. manza
      August 27, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      I agree there are a lot of myths out there, especially the one about manzanitas fueling a fire. We intentionally planted a ground cover form of it in front of our house, partially because I heard it could act as a fire retardant (I have it on a drip system) and partly because I love the red bark contrasted with green leaves.

      While on a garden tour last year, we talked to someone about my ideas for a Japanese garden and if it was possible to build one using CA natives. She referred me to Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren’s book since it has a conceptual design of one with a plant list. I immediately bought it, but while waiting for it to arrive, I found his web site at California’s Own Native Landscape Design. If you follow the link in his last sentence, you will see his Case Histories where he apparently stumbled across interesting findings regarding fires. This is not scientific at this time, but based on the properties his company has landscaped in the San Diego area, he is seeing a pattern that houses that have native plants that are occasionally watered have the best chance of protecting a near-by house.

      If you aren’t familiar with his projects, you’ll likely find the Case Histories page interesting.

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