A before (left) and after image showcases free work by the Defensible Space Assistance Program at a home in Lakeside. (Photo: Fire Safety Council of San Diego County)
A before (left) and after image showcases free work by the Defensible Space Assistance Program at a home in Lakeside. (Photo: Fire Safety Council of San Diego County)

SAN DIEGO — Defensible space — the buffer between your home and the flammable plant life that surrounds it — can make all the difference in saving your property from a fast-moving wildfire.

But not every resident has the means to keep their property cleared, whether that’s due to financial challenges, physical limitations or a lack of information.

The Fire Safe Council and Resource Conservation District of San Diego County want to change that, offering a free assistance program for eligible residents, plus tips and other resources available to everyone.

How to create defensible space on your property

Many San Diegans don’t realize that the law requires homeowners to maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their property. Starting from your home, work outward until you reach the property line or 100 feet, whichever comes first (you aren’t required to keep clearing into areas that don’t belong to you).

Cal Fire says within the first 30 feet of the home, or “Zone 1,” you should:

  • Remove all dead plants, grass and weeds
  • Remove dead leaves or pine needles should be cleared from the roof and rain gutters
  • Trim branches that hang over your roof, and trim trees to keep their branches a minimum of 10 feet from one another
  • Separate vegetation from around and under items that could catch fire, like furniture, play sets and patios

Extending from Zone 1 to the rest of the 100-foot perimeter, in “Zone 2” you should:

  • Cut or mow grass to a maximum height of 4 inches
  • Create additional space between shrubs and trees (see diagrams on this page)
  • Remove fallen leaves, needles, twigs and other plant life, though they are permitted at a depth of 3 inches
  • Keep exposed wood piles on bare soil, with at least 10 feet of clearance in all directions

Read the agency’s full guide to defensible space requirements here.

A map illustrates the two zones targeted by clearing defensible space for wildfire prevention. (Courtesy Cal Fire)

Need help? Apply for assistance

If a homeowner is elderly and physically unable to clear their space, hiring a contractor is too expensive or some other hurdle is keeping them from protecting their home, San Diego County residents should apply for the Defensible Space Assistance Program.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Fire Prevention and Forestry Coordinator Morgan Graves confirmed the program is actively accepting applications, which are considered on a case-by-case basis. Applicants must be the legal owner of the property to be cleared.

To apply for economic assistance, a one-person household generally is eligible at an income of $50,940 or less. For a family of four, that rises to $72,720. Physical disabilities and other hurdles are also grounds to apply.

If in doubt, Graves said residents can simply give the Fire Safe Council a call and see what’s possible. You can reach the department through the Resource Conservation District at 619-562-0096.

The program is adaptable, so each project can vary significantly in terms of size and scale. Some of the services, which are provided free of cost by professional contractors, include:

  • Brush and tree trimming/thinning
  • Dead tree removal, if funding permits 
  • Raking dead leaves and pine needles
  • Chipping removed vegetation
  • On-site education about effective defensible space

Funding for the program is provided by grants from the San Diego River Conservancy, San Diego Gas and Electric and the United States Forest Service.

The amount of money available for projects can vary geographically because of the nature of grant funding, Graves explained. Most parts of the region have plenty of funding available, but North County San Diego may only be eligible for more limited projects, she said.

Free chipping program in San Diego

Even if you don’t qualify for assistance clearing your property, the council’s no-cost chipping initiative can help you deal with the aftermath of creating defensible space.

Residents who thin, trim or remove brush and trees from their yard are often left with large piles of dry vegetation, which become fire hazards in their own right. The Fire Safety Council and its partners can send contractors to your property, where they’ll use wood chippers to break down your leftovers. The resulting chips are left at the residence, giving homeowners mulch for the property.

The council has a number of qualifications and requirements to take advantage of the program. Make sure to read the guidelines, then call or sign up online.

Need more help with defensible space in San Diego? Check out these resources: