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Sunday Special | Valley Briefing

The Fire- Safe Home

July 21, 1996

Those once-verdant hills surrounding your house have turned brown, the eucalyptus trees seem to be sprouting new branches every day and your weed whacker is on the fritz. What to do? An excess of overgrown vegetation burned in the Old Topanga firestorm in 1993, a tragic reminder to hillside and canyon residents that clearing brush is imperative in these hazardous areas. The Topanga fire destroyed 388 homes and caused more than $200-million worth of damage.

The city and county fire departments began brush inspections in May in fire-prone areas. City and county residents with overgrown vegetation are sent notices requiring that they clear the property themselves within about two weeks. Those who fail to comply will be billed for the cost of clearance. This can run up to $1,200 per day for brush clearance by a county or city agricultural crew. Last year, city fire inspectors issued about 15,000 notices to lot owners with potentially hazardous brush. County fire officials sent out about 32,000 notices. Of all the city and county notices sent out, more than 90% of the property owners complied.

In addition to brush clearance, homeowners can fireproof their homes and property by using the appropriate landscaping and fire-safe building materials. Property owners are also advised to be prepared in the event a fire threatens.

Landscaping

* Avoid planting flammable vegetation such as juniper, cedar, eucalyptus, cypress, acacia and pampas grass.

* Trees taller than 18 feet should have lower branches pruned at least 6 feet above the ground.

* Space trees and shrubs at least 10 feet apart.

* Regularly remove dead branches, leaves and needles from all plants.

* Planting with native vegetation is more efficient because many species are drought-tolerant and fire-resistant.

* Plants less than 18 inches high are most fire-resistant.

Fire-safe plants

* Dwarf coyote bush

* Succulents

* Trees such as live oaks, toyon, maples, sycamores

* On slopes, fire-resistant shrubs such as salt bush or quail bush

In Case of Fire

* Place noncombustible ladder against house for roof access.

* Attach 100-foot hose to spigot.

* Close doors and windows, seal attic and basement vents.

* Remove sheer window curtains, close heavy curtains.

* Store combustible materials, such as patio furniture.

* Fill large trash cans with water and place around house. Have sponges, small rugs or burlap sacks around to dip into water and extinguish spot flames.

* Turn off propane tanks.

* Leave lights on in house. Heavy smoke makes house dark.

* Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, gloves, a dampened bandanna and goggles if available.

* Wet roof with garden hose only when fire comes to within 600 feet, then get down from roof.

* For easier escape, back your car into the garage, keep windows closed and close garage door, leaving it unlocked.

* Don't stay to fight the fire.

The Safety zone

City and county fire departments require that a 30-foot area around their homes free of flammable vegetation to reduce the chance of a wildfire spreading onto property. This defensible space also gives firefighters room to maneuver to protect your home during a fire.

The city Fire Department requires that vegetation be cut to 3 inches or less for 100 feet around a house. The county allows vegetation to be up to 18 inches high for an area from 30 feet to 100 feet from a house.

House

* Make sure your address is visible.

* Tile, metal or slate make the most fireproof roofs. Shake and shingle roofs are the most dangerous.

* Dual-paned windows keep heat out and are less likely to burst during a fire. Make sure draperies are fireproof.

* Cover chimney with half-inch steel mesh to prevent sparks from igniting roof or brush.

* Remove any branches within 10 feet of chimney.

* Keep roof and gutters free of leaves and needles.

* Eaves and overhangs should be surrounded by fireproof material.

* If you have a swimming pool, consider getting a pump, which could be used in case of a fire.

* Keep woodpiles at least 30 feet away from buildings.

* Use masonry walls instead of wood fences.

Sources: Los Angeles City Fire Department; Los Angeles County Fire Department; Researched by JULIE SHEER/Los Angeles Times

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