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Staying safe on a budget: How to protect your home from California wildfires

Photo of man gardener raking leaves
(Bogdanhoda / Getty Images / iStockphoto)

Purchasing a home is often the most significant investment a person will make. With the ongoing — and growing — threat of wildfires, how to safeguard that investment is on many homeowners’ minds.

Over the past two years, Californians have suffered through seven of the top 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history, including the CZU Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. And according to RiskFactor.com, 83% of homes in Santa Cruz County are at moderate risk of burning in the next 30 years.

“Property owners need to remember that it is their responsibility to keep their home as defensible as possible.”

— Nate Armstrong, Fire Chief with the Coastside Fire Protection District of CalFire

“We like to encourage everyone to make manageable progress, so it doesn’t seem as daunting,” says Fire Chief Nate Armstrong with the Coastside Fire Protection District of CalFire. “Even if that’s just an hour per weekend in the late winter and early spring months to reduce the vegetation loading that will make their home more susceptible to fire in the summer and fall months when that vegetation dries out.”

Luckily, you can gain peace of mind by hardening your property against wildfires, and you don’t need to go broke to do it. Bay Federal Credit Union, a local not-for-profit cooperative with the mission of making a difference in the financial lives of its members and the community, compiled this list of tips for protecting your property on a budget.

bay federal defensive space
(Bogdanhoda/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The immediate zone

Experts agree that it’s important to keep the Immediate Zone (0-5 feet from the home) free of vegetation and trash bins, and to make walkways out of non-combustible material, such as stone.

When hardscaping...

  1. Always call around to price out your purchase. As an example, one local company might sell a cubic yard of decomposed granite for $24, while another will sell the same quantity for $150 or more.
  2. Consider that prices for second-hand materials are much more favorable. If you’re patient and willing to devote time to checking Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or salvage yards, you may find what you’re looking for free, or at a steeply discounted price.
  3. You can avoid costly delivery fees by fetching the stone yourself. When it comes to transporting a heavy load, borrowing a friend’s truck will save you money, even if you top off at the pump afterwards.

The intermediate zone

The Intermediate Zone extends from 5-30 feet from the home. The National Fire Protection Association recommends prioritizing spacing out vegetation and keeping up on maintenance in this area.

Other than succulents, be leery of drought-tolerant plants since they tend to be more flammable.

When landscaping...

  1. Grow plants from seeds or cuttings. A plant in a 5-gallon bucket will typically go for $20-$40, while a packet of seeds should run you in the $5 range. If $5 sounds too pricy, how about $0? Ask friends and family for cuttings of plants you’ve admired in their gardens.
  2. Generate your own compost with a discounted or free bin, or purchase “Green Gardening” soil. Top soil from Waste Management in Marina is priced at an affordable $50/ton or $5/bag, or the closer-to-home Grey Bears facility also offers compost for $10 per bag.
  3. Seek affordable help. Host a work party for friends, ask kids in the neighborhood if they’ll weed for a modest allowance, or visit the Day Worker Center in Live Oak to hire reliable, pre-screened adults.

The extended zone

The Extended Zone lies 30-100 feet from the home. Aim to keep six feet of space between grass and tree limbs, and proceed with caution. Unless your home is on a large parcel, this zone may extend past your property line.

When tree-trimming...

  1. Be a good neighbor. Always check with your neighbors before trimming or removing trees —especially if you’re not 100 percent certain of where your property line is. You may avoid costly litigation, and they may even be willing to split the cost.
  2. Do your homework. Excessive pruning or tree removal may require a permit from the city or county. While permit costs vary, they are always more affordable than fines.
  3. Hire a professional. A professional tree service may cost more up-front, but a licensed and bonded company will shoulder the liability should a large limb or tree fall on a structure, potentially saving you thousands in repairs.

Visit FireSafeSantaCruz.org for more helpful home-hardening information.

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Bay Federal Credit Union was started when local school teachers pooled their money together to start a credit union. That investment has grown through an amazing journey of involvement (evolution) into the area’s largest locally-owned financial institution, with over $1.5 billion in assets.