Landscaper Pulls Out Junipers to start the process. (Photo by Maureen McGettigan)

Junipers: Assessors Answering the Call for Home Visits

Jackie Ryan

            With a firewise policy requiring compliance by the end of August, many homeowners are taking a long, hard look at the zero to five-feet zone around their homes. And some may be scratching their heads trying to figure out what must go and what can stay. 

            “We can help with that,” says Iris Harrell, the chairperson of the Firewise Committee. “Just email us or call us, and we will send out an assessor to help identify plants and educate about the policy.”

            A team of 15 volunteer assessors, trained by Fire Safe Sonoma, has already conducted dozens of home visits. Their purpose, she reminds, is to help educate homeowners about the elements of the policy. They leave owners with a simple checklist on meeting the policy, some pertinent handouts on prevention, and many of the assessors, if asked, also provide recommendations and checklists on home hardening, which fire experts strongly recommend to defend against wildfire.  You can ask for a visit by emailing

            “It’s strictly an education process. The point of the assessments is to make us safe, to take a collective action that will protect the community. If one person does the job, and neighbors don’t, we all might suffer.  Most of all we want people to know we will work with them, so they don’t take out plants they don’t need to or buy the wrong mulch,” said Harrell.

            So what exactly does need to come out of the zero to five-foot “ignition zone?” 

            Any plant on the Do Not Plant List. The OVA website now has a photo guide, compiled by committee member Dave Watts, specifically for the zero- five-foot area only. The guide can be downloaded and printed. Access it here.

            In the first week of the Junk the Junipers campaign, hundreds of Junipers were chopped and cut and hauled to the Berger parking lot, where True North chipped them to reduce the volume for disposal. 

            “That first zone is the defensible space firefighters need to defend the home and get in there,” said Harrell. “It needs to be a clear area.”

            The policy also has requirements about mulch –  none in the ignition zone, where hardscape elements, rock and gravel are best, or just bare dirt. No wood or rubber mulches are allowed in the zero to five zone.  In the five to 30-foot zone of the property, no gorilla hair, redwood or cedar or rubber mulches are allowed. Other wood mulches, like arbor mulch, composted mulch and wood chips are allowed, if properly distributed, and larger sized chips of one inch or more is highly preferred, because it is harder to burn. Leaves are good, too, because they are natural mulch. Just keep their depth to two inches.  

            If you have questions about using or buying mulch, or how to design firewise plantings, call the Architectural Office or email the Firewise Committee.

            Harrell said the assessors get a lot of questions about plants in front of a window or growing up to the eaves. “If they are not on the Do Not Plant List, they can under the policy be kept, but we’d like to see most removed, because that is the safest thing to do. Plants in front of a window, regardless of the kind, put the glass at risk of cracking if there is fire.” Plants should be green, not grow to more than 18 inches and be irrigated.  Tall plants should be pruned back to avoid the risk of spreading fire through eave vents and into the attic. 

            Pointing to the success of Junk the Junipers, Harrell said Oakmonters are getting serious about changing the landscape to make the community more fire resistant. “There was hesitancy and even resistance at first,” she said. “That has changed dramatically, in our yards and in our homes. The plants we loved in the past, well, we may have to fall out of love with them. Instead we need to know we have done everything we can to protect our homes. We have to increase our odds. We want Oakmont to be defensible. If fire comes, we want it to pass through and not make its home here.”

Crew from True North feeds Juniper cuttings into a chipper at the Berger Center. (Photo by Maureen McGettigan)