A Cautionary Tale About Pine Straw

March 26, 2010

Recently on this forum there was a thread discussing pine straw as a garden mulch. Because quite a number of us use it (including myself), I thought I should remind everyone that there is an element of danger associated with its use.

In yesterday's edition of THE NEWS & OBSERVER (Raleigh, NC) there was a front page article with this headline: 'Fire Revives Questions About Pine Straw Safety'. The lead paragraph reads as follows: 'The fire that destroyed a half-dozen homes in a new North Raleigh subdivision . . . appeared to crawl along the ground whipped by wind and fed by grass and pine straw, before leaping up and burning virtually everything in its path . . . '.

This most recent conflagration is the third major such incident to have occurred in Raleigh in recent years. In 2007, 24 townhouses were destroyed there when a cigarette tossed into pine straw mulch started a wind-whipped fire. Last year in Apex (Raleigh suburb), another cigarette-into-pine straw fire destroyed 6 townhouses and led to a prohibition against the use of pine straw within 10 ft of a combustible exterior. A contributing factor in the destruction was that most (if not all) of the residences that burned were either partially or totally clad with vinyl siding.

Since I'm one who has advocated the use of pine straw in rose beds, I felt I should pass this warning along. I'll continue to use it, but always with respect for its destructive potential.

Comments (17)

  • roseman

    I have no doubt that this is true and can happen, however pine straw is the ground cover of choice for rose plantings in this area because it is readily available. No matter what sort of ground cover one uses, there are always drawbacks, but if one uses their common sense and is careful, what happened in Raleigh will not be a problem. Everything has its own potential for problems unless users are careful and take precautions.

  • windeaux

    Well, personally speaking, Roseman, I think having one's dwelling place destroyed because of one's selection of mulch is a pretty big drawback. Since, as you say, there are always drawbacks, & everything has its own potential for problems, do you feel there are comparably destructive drawbacks for, say, bark chips and compost?

  • karl_bapst_rosenut

    Another reaspn to quit smoking!
    People who toss their cigarette butts are littering and should be fined. Littering is against the lawn most areas and this law should be strictly enforced.

  • holleygarden Zone 8, East Texas

    Thanks for posting this. It's something to consider. I have always used the bark chips, until this year. Finally my pine trees are big enough to use free pine straw! Yeah!

    It would seem obvious that I would have thought of this. I am always fearful that the pine trees will catch on fire from some passerby throwing out a cigarette. But it really didn't cross my mind, so again, thanks for the post.

  • lagomorphmom

    FWIW, in our mountain community, pine straw 'mulch' is a no-no, mostly because we have way too much of it EVERYWHERE. Fire inspectors come around in spring to evaluate each property's fire load (needles, weeds, etc.) and you will get a nasty-gram from the county as they see fit. Otoh, bark chips are ok to 3" and are in fact used as weed deterrent at the fire dept lot.

    And, as a side note on the topic, junipers are HIGHLY flammable, as well, although not a penalty here - unfortunately, lots of folks have them as they are extremely drought tolerant. We took all most all of ours out.

  • butterfly4u

    It's the people who are the risk, not the pine straw.
    Pine straw was here before people were, and will be here hopefully after people are gone.
    Idiots who have no common sense throw flames around on a windy day where there is ground with any flammable such as pine straw, leaves, or anything will burn.
    Such is life, and common sense isn't common.

  • sandy808

    I use pine straw and will continue to use it in the majority of my garden areas, as I feel it is much superior to the pine bark I have always used.

    Pine bark is also flammable, although not as much as pine straw. Insects love to eat bark mulches, but aren't interested in pine straw.

    However, I am not in a huge fire prone area, and we do not smoke. That said, when we finish construction on our log sided home, I will use another type of mulch for any plantings close to the house, since there is a slight fire risk involved. I'm not sure what it will be yet, as I don't want pine bark next to it either.


  • Maryl (Okla. Zone 7a)

    What a good post. I use Pine Bark mulch and am very happy with it. But last fall for some reason (probably boredom) I investigated pine straw as a mulch, even though it's not available around here. In our dry summers we can have a real problem with fire, so this warning is an important one for me. And btw, man does not cause everything. There's something known as lightening, and it's been the culprit more then once in setting a house/field/woods aflame. I think I'll pass on the Pine Straw.

  • ceterum

    As I said I never liked the look of it so no I have a further excuse not to use it.

  • predfern

    The local nursery recommends hardwood mulch. Roger Cook on Ask This Old House always uses pine bark mulch. Cypress mulch is the cheapest at Home Depot but environmentalists don't like it.

  • buford

    Those of us who live in the SE, pine straw is a natural mulch, especially if you have pine trees on your property. I don't use it in flower beds, because for me, it breaks down too easily and gets tracked into the house on your shoes (when puttering around the flower beds). I use pine bark chips for most of my yard and only use pine straw on hilly portions of my yard. But since the largest hill I have in my yard is now covered with mature pine trees, I don't have to buy it, it just falls naturally. We have had some dry weather here recently and it can be crunchy at times. But yes, the idiots who toss cigarette butts are to blame. I pick up about 2-3 a week off my front lawn. Disgusting.

  • windeaux

    ROFL. Sorry guys, I had no idea that so many of you were so heavily invested in the use of pine straw, regardless of the potential (altho remote) consequences. Please be assured that nobody, least of all me, has any interest WHATSOEVER in impinging on your God-given right to rake the volatile, incendiary stuff right up to the foundation of your happy home. A gleeful gardening season to one and all, ya'll!

  • sandy808

    Actually, I'm glad you posted this windeaux, because there are comments made here that I had never thought of. For example, lightning. I think Florida is known as the lightning capital of the U.S., and I hadn't thought of it torching the pine needle mulch.

    As a result, I am only going to use it in the garden areas that are FAR from the the area near my pond perhaps.

    Thank you for posting your concerns.


  • myrmecodia

    It's the people who are the risk, not the pine straw.
    Pine straw was here before people were, and will be here hopefully after people are gone.

    Well, yes. But there's a reason the longleaf pine savannas in the SE United States are naturally adapted to fire. Fire is a regular feature of an ecosystem where old pine needles build up.

  • buford

    windeuex, many homes in the SE have lots wooded with pine trees. The pine straw is not only all over the beds, but lawns, roofs and gutters. So it's not just about using it as mulch, it's natural here, which is why it is such a popular mulch.

  • lagomorphmom

    "The pine straw is not only all over the beds, but lawns, roofs and gutters. So it's not just about using it as mulch, it's natural here, which is why it is such a popular mulch."

    Not to argue (but) I would suggest in the southeast with your 'natural' humidity, fire is less a danger.

    We have the same conditions that you describe above and with humidity in the teens and twenties, these are extreme fire conditions in low humidity and winds. I posted about the fire that almost took our mountain community last year. I don't envy you your bugs in the SE, but the humidity does serve you well in some ways!

    Point being, we are talking about a cautionary tale. Know your area, your climate, etc. and judge your fire danger accordingly.

  • buford

    lago, very true. Except for the past few years, we've had a lot of dry periods and I constantly get 'fire alerts' on the weather (dry air with windy conditions). But normally the pine straw would be wet enough that it wouldn't burn for long. I guess that wasn't the case in that Richmond neighborhood. Also, my house has cement siding, not vinyl, so I guess I'm not that concerned about it :)

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