Which mulch is the right mulch? Research on mulch and fire helps you decide!
Spring is almost here and time to get out and start doing some yard work. As I stand in front of all of the different types of mulch at my local home repair store, I can't decide which one to use. Which one will be the safest? Which one will last the longest? Which one will look the best the longest? Which one will be the safest? I know, I already mentioned that one but being a firefighter by trade, these things cross my mind -- a lot! There are many choices to use to beautify your landscaping. There are wood chips, pine bark, pine needles, shredded rubber and more. But which one is the safest? I asked an employee in the garden section if he knew of any fire spread ratings of any of the mulches in the store and he looked at me with a blank, faraway, confused look. So, I decided to look into this myself. Mulch has many positive attributes. It reduces the water requirements of plants, cools the soil temperature, controls weeds and soil erosion, and visually enhances the landscape. But a major drawback is that many are combustible, which presents a huge problem in fire prone areas. Embers from an approaching wildfire can ignite areas where mulch is used. If these areas are adjacent to the home, it could be wind up to be a disastrous mix. An evaluation of mulch combustibility was performed in 2008 by the Carson City Fire Department, the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and the University of Nevada Cooperation Extension. The results from this project offer recommendations for uses of mulches in wildfire hazard areas. Mulch can be defined as any material that is used to cover the soil surface for a variety of purposes. They can be classified as organic or inorganic. Organic mulches usually come from plant materials and include pine needles, pine bark nuggets, shredded western cedar and even ground or shredded rubber. Inorganic mulches consist of rock, gravel and brick chips. These inorganic mulches tend not to burn and are safe to use in any setting. Eight mulch treatments were evaluated for three characteristics: flame height, rate of fire spread and temperature. On the test day, the National Fire Danger Rating System value was Extreme. All eight mulches were found to be combustible but varied considerably in the three areas measured. Shredded rubber, pine needles and shredded western red cedar showed the greatest potential for all three characteristics. Shredded rubber burned at the hottest average temperature (in excess of 630 degrees F at a height of 4 inches) and produced the greatest flame length at over 3 feet. Shredded western red cedar had the most rapid rate of spread, traveling at an average rate of 47.9 feet per minute. It also produced embers that moved beyond the plot perimeter and ignited adjacent mulch plots. Composted wood chips showed the slowest spread rate and the shortest average flame length, usually smoldering. So what does all of this mean? We have a variety of mulch choices in our landscaping – and we need to know the best uses for each choice. Immediately next to your home out to five feet, the best mulch to use is an inorganic one (rock, brick, pavers) or fire resistant plant materials that are well watered and maintained. Composted wood chips are the best choice of the materials tested for residential landscape use. However, they are organic and will still burn. They do tend to burn at the lowest speed and lowest flame length. If this material is ignited, it could still ignite siding, plant debris and other combustible materials. The smoldering of this product could also go undetected by firefighters during a wildland fire event. Shredded rubber, pine needles and shredded western red cedar can have their place in your landscaping design, just further from your home. These materials could be used selectively for landscaping at least 30' from your home. So, with this new information that I have now learned about mulch, I think I'll use some nice gravel with a few larger stones for some accent close to my house and save the other stuff to use away from the house. You never know when a fire is going to approach your home and I don't want to lose the biggest investment I'll ever make. Photo: A home in Rockland County, NY, damaged by fire starting in mulch in flower beds, from a white paper, "Mulch Fires: What Should the Label Say," by Thomas Williams and Michael Lane, at Vermont Chapter of International Association of Arson Investigators