Firefighters know pine straw is a threat.
It burns twice as hot as cypress mulch and, once lit, spreads the flame more than 7 feet per minute.
Other North Carolina cities regulate the use of pine straw around apartment buildings. Those are a special concern for firefighters because small fires can quickly turn catastrophic, placing many people in danger. They are targeting apartments and other complexes considered multifamily.
The Wilmington Fire Department wants certain apartments to limit the use of pine straw, but isn't yet willing to go so far as banning it.
Instead, Battalion Chief Sammy Flowers wants to convince apartments to pick another landscaping material.
"We'd rather have community buy-in," said Flowers, of the WFD's fire and life safety division.
For now, firefighters have two separate tactics to address the pine straw at apartments with combustible exteriors, which includes wood or vinyl siding. The fire department wants new developments and existing complexes to agree to limit the use of pine straw.
Why it matters
Since 2000, there have been 32 fires involving pine straw that have damaged multifamily housing in Wilmington, according to a WFD analysis.
Elsewhere, pine straw has been blamed for fueling large fires, including a massive 2007 fire that destroyed 27 units at a Raleigh condominium complex. It took 150 firefighters more than an hour spraying hundreds of gallons of water per minute to extinguish that fire.
Wilmington firefighters don't want to see that happen here.
"It poses a whole set of problems for us," Flowers said, explaining that flames from pine straw spread faster and higher while burning hotter compared to other landscaping sources, such as wood-based mulches.
"If you prevent it, you don't have to go fight it," Flowers said.
Why apartments use it
While it may be flammable, apartment managers use pine straw because it is cheaper.
If a complex was going to spend $10,000 on mulch, it could probably pay $8,000 for pine straw, said Frank Hendrickson, who owns Coastal Lawn and Design.
Pine trees, North Carolina's official state tree, are also particularly abundant in Southeastern North Carolina.
"If you lay pine straw, you're almost replenishing it yourself," Hendrickson said. He does landscaping for three apartment complexes in Wilmington, all of which pay for pine straw once a year.
Apartment managers can take advantage of pine trees by raking up the needles that fall year-round to use as landscaping, said Cindy Harrison, the president of the Wilmington Apartment Association.
"We do try to use what nature's already given us," Harrison said. "I would say a lot of the apartment communities do use pine straw."
Harrison, who manages Wilmington's Wimbledon Chase Apartments, said no landscaping material is perfect. In wet conditions, wood chips can create mold, she said. While rocks may not be flammable, they can be thrown through a window.
At Wimbledon Chase, which uses pine straw in landscaping, Harrison tries to be proactive with educating residents about fire hazards.
She includes safety tips in newsletters and in the lease agreement. If she hears about a tenant grilling outside near pine straw, she'll call them.
"You have to tell people," she said. "Some people just aren't aware."
How the process works
Before Hendrickson opened his Wilmington landscaping business, he spent a decade in Raleigh. He was there when the city banned pine straw near multifamily buildings.
"I think it's an important thing to move towards that," he said, though he thinks it should be gradual. In Raleigh, some of his clients were angry about the cost of installing new landscaping a month or two after paying for pine straw.
No rule changes are imminent in Wilmington.
For new developments, landscaping is addressed when the project appears before the city's technical review committee, which scrutinizes development plans. At those meetings, fire officials ask developers to agree to a condition to keep pine straw 10 feet away from buildings with combustible exteriors.