With two local fires this season and dozens in previous years in bark mulch, considering how to limit the impact of bark mulch is a hot topic in the defensible space conversation. Bark mulch can be a receptive fuel bed for cigarettes and the embers produced by nearby wildfires. If the bark mulch is right next to home and/or touching your wood siding or structure, the risk of a fire spreading from the landscape to your home increases dramatically.

Finding an attractive landscape design without using bark mulch used to be difficult. Those landscaping ideas in Central Oregon were few and far between. Now with new science pointing to bark mulch next to structures as a significant fire risk, some property management companies are thinking outside the box to better protect the communities they manage.

Typically any small fire that begins in bark mulch can smolder and burn slowly for days without anyone noticing or be considering it as a threat. This was one property manager’s first experience with a bark mulch fire.

“I was managing a small apartment complex in Eugene. We kept seeing small smokes pop up in the bark mulch surrounding the apartments. We’d spray it down with water and thought that would be the end of it,” she explained. “When the smoke didn’t stop reappearing, we called the fire department.”

When the firefighters came out, they explained that a small ember or cigarette in bark dust can smolder underneath for days or weeks at a time, sometimes eluding detection. With one wind gust, it could be off to the races. When developing and building new apartments in the southwest part of Bend, it was time to think outside the box.

“We thought of including decorative rock in our landscaping for a variety of reasons”, one property manager noted. “Reducing the risk of fires from cigarettes, even in a non-smoking community, and wildfires was an added benefit. Incorporating the rock into the landscape just seemed to reflect the community as a whole.”

When talking about defensible space and fire preparedness, some folks think if they live in an apartment complex some actions may be out of their control, such as choosing their landscaping. With the property managers making one little change, rock instead of bark, for the entire complex, they have drastically improved everyone’s chances of surviving a wildfire.

*Pro-tip: If you happen to live in a place that has used bark for landscaping, don’t feel like you have to remove it all. You can simply put in a 2-3 feet ring of rock or bare dirt around your home, condo, or apartment complex to have the same effect as a flowerbed full of rock.