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Elfin Forest, CA, 92029




Many portions of the unincorporated areas of the County of San Diego share expansive, rural settings of native plant life. Fire is an important factor in maintaining the healthy status of these native plant species. Since these areas are also highly desirable places in which to live, maintaining a defensible fire space around structures is essential, and required, for protection against fire. This information will provide you with some helpful hints to assist you in defending your property.

During the October 2003 Firestorms, it was painfully evident that there was insufficient "Defensible Space" on many properties which contributed to destroyed homes and other structures. As a result, the County of San Diego has amended an ordinance that requires residents to keep their property free of fire hazards: including certain vegetation types, green waste and rubbish. Residents can comply with this ordinance by creating a "Defensible Space" around their homes and by taking other preventative steps on their property.

What is Defensible Space?

Defensible Space is the area around a structure where combustible vegetation that can spread fire has been cleared, reduced or replaced. This space acts as a barrier between a structure and an advancing fire.

How large should the Defensible Space be?

You need to clear combustible vegetation in a 100-foot radius from any structure. Your local fire agency may require you to clear additional vegetation by a written letter. You are not required to cross your property line in order to clear the 100 feet. The neighboring property owner may be required to clear the additional distance by the fire agency.

How do I maintain the Defensible Space?

  • You may plant fire-resistant, irrigated landscaping in the first 50 feet of the 100 feet from your structure. These plants need to be maintained all year around. Note: no irrigated, or non-native landscaping is allowed within an open space easement.
  • You need to keep natural vegetation in the remaining 50 feet of the 100 foot space. This would be the area furthest away from your structure. The plants need to be thinned and cut back to no more than 6 inches above the ground.
  • You may need to do this several times a year since the plants grow back.
  • Do not completely remove all vegetation, which would leave the ground bare. Some vegetation is necessary to prevent erosion. When native vegetation is removed for fire control the bare soil is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. That means do not use mechanical means like a bulldozer, but thin by hand.
  • Do not remove or disturb the existing plant root system to prevent any future erosion. See note above about not using a dozer to clear vegetation!
  • Remove dead and dying vegetation.
  • Trim trees that overhang or touch your structures.
  • Properly irrigating plants will help prevent plants from igniting. Wildfires rarely occur until after June, because as little as 1 inch of water per month keeps drought adapted plants from readily burning. Permanent irrigation should be confined to landscaping within the first 50 feet of a structure.
  • Trees and shrubs can be maintained by deep watering at least once a month for drought tolerant species and once a week for high water requiring plants.

What types of fire-resistant plants should I choose?

  • Grow close to the ground.
  • Have a low sap or resin content.
  • Grow without accumulating dead branches, needles or leaves.
  • Are easily maintained and pruned.
  • Are drought-tolerant

How do I clear legally?

Combustible vegetation can only be removed by mowing, cutting and grazing as long as the root structure is left intact. Again, do not use mechanical means – besides erosion issues mentioned above, bare ground will become a field of weeds which when dry present the highest fire risk. Any trees you remove shall have the stumps cut no higher than 8 inches above the ground. The only exception would be an orchard. Orchard trees may have their stumps completely removed.

Can I clear into Open Space?

If an open space easement is located on your property you may legally clear the 100 feet from your structure. Again it needs to be done by hand and leave the plant roots intact. Even if it takes you into that easement, upon written authorization of your fire protection district. No irrigated, or non-native landscaping is allowed within an open space easement.

What else should I do to protect my property against fire?

  • Vary the height of plants and adequately space them. Taller plants need to be spaced wider apart.
  • Existing trees and large shrubs should be pruned by cutting off any branches up to 6 feet above the ground to prevent ground fires from spreading upwards into trees.
  • For fire truck access, remove vegetation within 10 feet of each side of your driveway.
  • Remove any tree limbs within 10 feet of your chimney.
  • Work with your neighbors to clear common areas between houses, and prune areas of heavy vegetation that are a fire threat to both properties.
  • Avoid planting trees under or near electrical lines. They may grow into or make contact with overhead lines. Under windy conditions these instances may cause a fire.
  • If you have a heavily wooded area on your property, removing dead, weak or diseased trees may improve growing conditions. This will leave you with a healthy mixture of both new and older trees.
  • Any removed trees may be chipped and left on your property if they don’t present a fire hazard. Contact your local fire agency to find out how to do this.
  • Don’t forget to legally dispose of all your cut vegetation. You may contact your local landfill to inquire about green waste recycling. Open burning may not be allowed. Contact your fire agency for more information.
  • Stack firewood and scrap wood piles at least 50 feet from any structure and clear away any combustible vegetation within 10 feet of the piles. Many homes have "survived" as a fire moved past it, only to burn later from a wood pile that caught fire after the firefighters had moved on to protect other homes.
  • Check and clean your roofs and gutters on all structures several times during the spring, summer and fall to remove debris that can easily ignite from a spark.


Determine & map primary & alternate evacuation routes and temporary boarding sites or livestock holding facilities in advance.


Horse owners should ensure that a halter and lead line for each horse is kept on or near its enclosure gate and owners of any livestock should post emergency contact information in a conspicuous place where such animals are situated.


Make arrangements to ensure that suitable vehicles, trailers, handlers, and drivers are available to transport livestock. Facilitate the evacuation of these animals by getting them familiar with transport vehicles ahead of time.


Ensure that horses and other companion animals have microchip identification, and that all animals have some identification. If evacuation is prudent, do it earlier rather than later. Disaster related weather, visibility, and/or road conditions could present additional challenges to transporting livestock.

If large animals cannot be evacuated, determine whether they can be moved to available shelter or allowed to remain in an outside enclosure, based on the level & type of disaster and the reliability & location of the shelter or enclosure. 


Pet Disaster Plan

The County of San Diego Department of Animal Services recommends that you prepare, practice, and update a disaster plan with your family, and assemble emergency supplies ahead of time.  As a part of an overall plan to protect your family members, the following recommendations can help reduce the risk of harm to pets and livestock: Maintain a pet emergency kit with sufficient supplies for each pet. (The following recommended items are typically available at pet supply stores or from your veterinarian.)


A leash, harness, or pet carrier (large enough for your pet to stand and turn around in), and a muzzle for any dog known to be aggressive or defensive around people or other animals.Also include a stake and tie-out for each dog. A properly fitting leather or nylon collar with a securely affixed license tag (for dogs) & ID tag (listing your address and phone number).


Dogs and cats should wear a collar & tag at all times, whether or not they normally go outdoors, and all animals should have some type of identification.

Microchip your pet for permanent identification, and keep your information current with the microchip company and your local animal shelter database.

Transportable containers with at least a week's supply of water and (preferably dry) pet food, and a stable, unbreakable water bowl or dispenser and sturdy food bowl or feeder. Include a manually operated can opener & plastic can lid for canned food.  A copy of current veterinary records, including rabies & wellness vaccination certificates, and at least a week's worth of any needed medicines & supplies - in a waterproof container. (Proof of current vaccinations may be required by boarding facilities).  A pet first aid guide and supplies, including wound cleaning, dressing, and bandaging material.


Supplies to collect and dispose of pet wastes, e.g., plastic bags, scooper, cat litter, etc.  Several recent photographs of your pet kept in a waterproof container (in case your animal gets lost).


Start a buddy system with people in your neighborhood who will check on your animals in case you're away from home during an emergency. Consider including authorization in your veterinarian's file for your "buddy" to request emergency veterinary treatment for your animal(s) in your absence.


Locate and map kennels, veterinary facilities, or other animal boarding facilities and pet friendly lodging near your home and along primary and alternate evacuation route(s) - in and out of your county.

Be prepared to quickly evacuate your home if you become aware of any unreasonable risk of harm that is likely to endanger your neighborhood; don't wait until the "last minute".

NEVER leave your pet chained outside and, if you evacuate your home, DON'T LEAVE YOUR PETS, you may not be able to return to care for them for an extended period of time. Structural damage to your home or animal enclosure may enable your pet to escape, or permit other animals, pests, or the elements to enter and endanger the pet.


Maintain an accessible and secure list of phone numbers & addresses of local organizations that may be able to provide emergency assistance, including your veterinarian, animal control department, humane society, agricultural association, feed store, state/county veterinarian and the American Red Cross.


Listen to local emergency broadcast radio stations for information on emergency shelters and holding areas that may be available to temporarily house your pets and livestock.

For more information see the Fire Department presentation from the September 2011.

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