Close to Home: Gardening in the new California

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The story is familiar to all of us who endured the firestorm. A warm windy night of sleep interrupted by the frantic knock of a neighbor at the front door and the realization that a wall of flames was rapidly approaching from the north and east. But this story has a bit of a happier ending.

Seven days after the midnight evacuation, Mary Lou Milkoff and her husband, Ted, learned that their home had been spared. Two weeks later, they were allowed to return home. In the weeks that followed, utility service returned and life returned to some semblance of normal, despite the scarred and burned landscape around them. If you visit their home today, it’s difficult to see another one left standing in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Milkoffs have lived on 5 bucolic acres of oak and madrone woodland for 32 years. Their little slice of Sonoma County is located in a valley that fire officials described as a blast furnace that funneled the fire to the southwest along Mark West Creek, ultimately crossing Highway 101 into Coffey Park. Creating a defensible space makes the work of our heroic firefighters an easier task, and the years of hard work and maintenance that was invested in their property was likely a contributing factor in sparing their beautiful home. On a walking tour recently, I noticed the landscaping care taken by the Milkoffs.

Mary Lou Milkoff shared that their routine landscape maintenance had three key features:

— Repeated up-limbing of the larger trees in the immediate area around their home and removal of low-growing shrubs and chaparral in the woodland.

— Removal of the native California bay trees to eliminate the undergrowth laddering effect that can occur during a fire and the risk that bay trees would transmit Sudden Oak Death among their native oaks.

— Repeated shearing to the ground of Scotch broom; this European native is a widespread noxious invasive plant in Sonoma County and can provide much additional fuel to a fire.

In November, a group from UC Master Gardeners of Sonoma County came together to plan how we could best help people who lost homes, and how we could help educate our community at large about fire-wise landscaping. We adopted the following definition, developed by Southern California UC Cooperative Extension, to guide our work: Fire-wise landscaping supports creating and maintaining fire-safe and sustainable landscapes in the wildland-urban interface. A fire-resistant landscape is an environment where plants and hardscape are maintained so that they do not easily transmit fire and where a defensible space reduces the risk of fire burning on your property.

Our team has developed a series of one-page handouts on important fire-wise topics and established a webpage homeowners,

Volunteers from the master gardener program will host free, half-day workshops on Saturday at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa and on Oct. 6 at the community center in Sonoma. You can register in advance at In addition, there will be fire-wise landscaping lectures through our Sonoma County Library lecture series this fall and on an ongoing basis.

Please join us in learning how you can create a more fire-wise and sustainable home landscape. Mary Lou Milikoff will be at the workshops as one of our featured speakers.

Bill Klausing is part of the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County.

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