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Problem Lawn Turns into Visible Lesson in Fire-Wise, Water-Wise Landscaping at Auburn Fire Station

A problematic lawn at an old Auburn fire station is becoming a visible lesson in fire-wise landscaping. Not only will the newly planted shrubs and ground covers save water and money, they'll also directly help the firefighters.

Using rebates offered by the Placer County Water Agency to help cover costs, the fire station makeover serves as an example of how businesses and residents can use their landscaping to help protect their property from fire danger while also illustrating the beautiful benefits of water-wise plants.

WaterWise & FireWise Plant List

See the Landscape Plan and Plant List for the Auburn Fire Department makeover

On a high-profile corner just off Highway 49, Auburn Fire Station No. 1 at 485 High St. is no longer staffed. Instead, it serves as a meeting center for departmental training and special events.

With an eye out for fire danger, the new landscape “hardens” the building, helping protect it from embers that can travel miles. In the Sierra foothills, any structure can be threatened by wildfire – especially during times of drought.

In addition, the new landscape will save the Auburn firefighters many hours every month. Firefighters are responsible for mowing their station's lawns.

“That's another benefit for our firefighters—no lawn maintenance,” says Battalion Chief Robert Zaucha of the Auburn Fire Department. “We're custodians of our stations and responsible for their upkeep. Before (the conversion), they were out there once a week, mowing a mostly dead lawn.”

The new landscape will be easy care. “It’s all low-water vegetation, set up on drip irrigation with a smart controller,” Zaucha says. “It’s so much easier (than lawn maintenance) and it’s going to look better than the old grass. For years down the road, it will look nice.”

Across from a pizza parlor, the High Street station gets many passersby. “Its location is very visible with a lot of traffic,” Zaucha notes. “It was surrounded by all grass and, with the drought, it was very brown. The green sections were crabgrass or Bermudagrass. That was the only thing growing; everything else was dead.”

This is the Auburn Fire Department’s second station makeover. A 2019 fire-wise/water-wise landscape conversion of the Auburn Maidu Fire Station provided both inspiration to the department and Auburn residents. The old thirsty lawn that surrounded that station was replaced with more than 100 flowering shrubs and ground covers in a project spearheaded by two Boy Scouts.

Supporting birds and bees, the flower-filled landscape also demonstrated the basics of “firescaping”—landscaping with an eye out for fire prevention. While no plant is “fire proof,” some species are less likely to burn or provide fuel for wildfires. For example, plants with waxy leaves can resist hot embers. Succulents don’t burn; they turn to mush. In firescaping, it’s not only the plant varieties but where they’re planted. At both locations, the fire station makeovers followed the basics of firescaping.

To help harden the building against hot embers, no plants or flammable material (such as wood fencing) is allowed within 5 feet of structures. Instead, buildings are ringed by gravel, decomposed granite or hardscape. “A grapestake fence is like a row of kindling attached to your house,” notes Zaucha.

Rather than in straight rows, low-growing plants are grouped into well-spaced islands with walkways or more gravel separating the beds. Those walkways form fire breaks between the beds and help create what’s known as “defensible space.”

A rebate reminder to PCWA customers got the fire department thinking about the High Street station.

“We said, ‘Let’s get rid of the lawn and do something water wise,’” Zaucha says. “It really is a win-win. We’re reducing our water use significantly. For us, we’re showcasing fire-wise landscaping. It shows fire-wise doesn’t mean barren but can be beautiful. And it’s less work.”

Jeff Ambrosia of Yamasaki Landscape Architecture in Auburn handled the conversions at both fire stations. The hardest part? Removing the weedy old lawn.

“It takes a lot of effort to make sure you eradicate it,” Ambrosia explains. “Bermudagrass roots grow 6 feet deep. You can’t just till it; you’ve got to kill it.”

While a more natural method using sheet mulching is preferred, sometimes herbicides are the only option. Otherwise, the Bermudagrass will overwhelm the new landscaping before it can become established. Over five weeks, Ambrosia used three applications of herbicide, irrigating the weeds between each application so the plants would absorb it.

Once the Bermudagrass was really dead, it could be rototilled under. Before planting the new landscape, Ambrosia amended the soil with nutrient-rich compost and installed drip irrigation.

The High Street fire station site is small, so the landscaping is relatively simple. Decomposed granite and gravel will separate the newly transplanted shrubs.

The same concept can be converted to other business or home landscapes. Ambrosia’s picks for fire-wise, water-wise landscaping include such flower-filled shrubs as butterfly bush, rockrose, cotoneaster, mahonia, nandina, Russian sage, spiraea and lilac. Yarrow, daylilies, lupines and salvias also work well.

“This was an opportunity to show the community that you can plant something that’s still beautiful that’s water wise and fire wise,” Ambrosia says. “Defendable space is a really important concept. People are starting to take it seriously.”

Says PCWA Deputy Director of Customer Services Linda Higgins, “We’re excited to share the Maidu and now the Auburn Fire stations as examples of Fire- Wise, Water-Wise landscaping, which is so critical for residents and businesses, as we continue to rebuild after last year’s Mosquito Fire.”

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