Earlier this month, a large, devastating fire in Maui—the second-largest island in Hawaii—caused at least 100 confirmed deaths so far, and left many people missing or injured in the town of Lahaina. The press has called it a “bush fire,” which is a term that refers to fires that burn through a specific kind of often arid landscape that has been stripped of some vegetation by development or industry. That doesn’t sound like the image of Hawaii that most of us conjure in our minds, but the islands have experienced a very hot, dry summer. This isn’t even the first major fire, although it’s by far the worst in terms of deaths and property destruction.
One photo of a house on Front Street in Lahaina (top) has become a remarkable image in the midst of the devastation as the only surviving house in its neighborhood. Experts are estimating that 80 percent of the buildings in the town of Lahaina, home to about 12,000 people, have been destroyed. The so-called “Miracle House” has entranced the internet, where people are speculating about what could have spared the house. In truth, it’s probably due to a mix of factors, not least of which is luck.
But the home also had an unusual advantage when it comes to fire: the owners surrounded it with a three-foot-wide area of river rock. The homeowners told Honolulu Civil Beat that they’d wanted to protect their home’s foundation from the typical runoff associated with watering traditional landscaping. Loose stone cover, which is used in traditional landscaping to “block off” areas where homeowners don’t want plants to grow, is a huge part of environmentally conscious landscaping, as well. In fact, the survival of the Lahaina Miracle House may highlight how many kinds of “greener” lawns can help keep homes safe from fire and other issues.
It’s easy to see how a layer of stone helps to thwart fire; stones will definitely never catch fire, and even firefighters dig ditches and spread neutral cover in order to stop fires from spreading. Fire is terrifying, but it’s also too chemically cowardly to make the leap. Many homeowners may not know, though, that choosing certain plants and ground cover also reduces fire risk.
In 2023, homeowners in especially climate-troubled states, like California and Arizona, have been urged to consider alternative lawns. The reason is water. These states rely on water resources that are often piped in from elsewhere, making water a precious and costly resource that should not be spent to care for non-native plants like many common lawn grasses.
Even in a perfect world of plentiful water, it’s human nature to forget or delay doing a chore like watering your lawn. Sprinklers with timers cost money. Many people live in homes where they don’t care for their lawns because they’re renters. It’s hard to keep track of local precipitation to find out when you should supplement with sprinklers. And people may buy homes with lawns they simply don’t know the details about.
All of that means these lawns may be dry. And that’s where fires spread.
On the other hand, choosing a lawn of moss, drought resistant plants, or stone—or a combination of all of these things—takes artificially occurring dryness out of the mix. River stone or gravel allows rainfall to drain through into the soil, and because it covers the surface of that soil, the moisture does not evaporate as easily. Mosses are able to hang onto water, like tiny soft cactuses, and they help keep moisture in the soil around them.
And drought-resistant plants, which can include more local plants, as well as imported plants with extreme tolerance, are accustomed to conditions where water is less scarce without becoming dry and increasingly flammable. Choosing a nontraditional lawn also reduces grass trimmings, which are often left in places where they can dry out and become unwitting kindling in the worst-case scenario.
Bob Grover is chair of the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ Sustainability Council. He’s also the president of Pacific Landscape Management, a company with multiple locations in Washington and Oregon. “Many traditionally used plants require significant maintenance, and we always suggest those plants that are more drought tolerant, insect resistant, and require the least amount of pruning and maintenance,” he tells Popular Mechanics.
The company prides itself on using the smallest footprint solution for a particular problem, including adjusting irrigation in response to weather. And opting for lower-maintenance plants reduces water needs, making the overall scale of irrigation smaller. It saves people money, as well as creating more sustainable lawns that stay healthier and less dryness prone with less water.
The interim solution for people in areas with wildfires exacerbated by climate change may be to use a mix of different nontraditional lawn matter in order to make lawns that thrive with less water, and don’t require special maintenance to avoid drying out—perhaps decorated with, and interrupted by, areas of gravel. (If you decide you want to try gravel, Omni Calculator has a gravel calculator for how much you’ll need.)
There’s one thing homeowners in fire-prone areas should probably avoid altogether as they decide how to care for their lawns: combustible mulches. We often think of “mulch” as one particular thing: a mixture of small pieces of wood. But that usage is misleading, because mulch refers to a whole category that includes gravel and stone, as well as mulches made from recycled tires and other materials.
If the material itself is combustible, like wood, then the mulch made from it is also combustible. Choose other mulches, or keep any combustible mulches at least five feet from your home.
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