Trial by Fire

These landscaping tips will keep your home safe long before the first signs of wildfire.

By Debra Lee Baldwin

Photography by Liz Cockrum

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Battle wildfires before they start, through fire-wise gardeningThe moment she saw a cloud of black smoke thousands of feet high east of her San Diego County home, Peggy Petitmermet phoned her husband, Robert, at work, then arranged for their daughter, Giverny, to go home with a friend after school. "I went through the house, gathering things in case we had to evacuate," Peggy recalls. She then attempted to hose the garden. "But the Santa Ana wind was so strong, it blew the water back in my face." By midafternoon, the air had turned thick, orange, and acrid, and swirled with ash. The couple watched in horror as flames engulfed a hillside less than a mile away.

"Fire had blocked the main road east of us," she says, "so we escaped on a dirt road to the south." Safe at the home of friends, the family watched their community burn on the evening news. Footage showed horses rearing as owners tried to save them, and rafters ablaze against a smoke-dark sky. By the time the fire was under control, 8,600 acres and 120 homes had burned. It was a scene of almosttotal destruction.That was the fall of 1996; wildfire again threatened the house in 2003 and 2007. "The first time,we weren't ready," Peggy says. "What protected us was 5 acres that had been cleared to the north." A neighbor was not as fortunate. "He went back to get family photos and tried to outrun the fire. It overtook him..." She falls silent, remembering how he died. Since then, thanks to Peggy's efforts and those of her neighbors, their 300-home community—known as Elfin Forest, because of the dwarf oaks that populate its steep hills and deep canyons—is becoming a model for its fire-wise gardens, planning, and preparation.

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