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Landscaping for Fire Country

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Think "water"

    Hurricanes, earthquakes, flash floods, tornadoes, even monstrous blizzards– all the tools mother nature carries in her belt for shutting down the civilized world carry little weight when it comes to this tiny region of the Pacific Northwest, where the low spines of our local mountains protect us from the worst of weather extremes.

    Except for fire. Each fall, as the winds begin to blow hot and heavy, we turn our eyes to those self-same mountains and their blanket of trees and anticipate the effects of a mild winter, a low snowpack, a dry spring. We apprehensively listen to the weather, waiting for those first thunderstorms of autumn and the lightning that crackles from the sky. We wonder what the fire season will bring us this year.

     As the Moseley’s of Heron illustrate so amply in our cover story–Firewise– there’s a lot a savvy homeowner can do to protect their property from fire danger, most of it revolving around understanding what a fire feeds on, and limiting its availability around our homes. Propane tanks, wood piles and overgrown yards are all fuel sources that can threaten our homes.

     Chris Schnepf, a researcher from the University of Idaho, points out that new residents to the area may not be as fire-wise as they could be. “People don’t have a natural feel for the frequency of fires in the Inland Northwest,” he explained. “Historically,  fires occurred here as often as tornadoes occurred in the Midwest.”

    In the last couple of decades, the number of people choosing to live in the forest has more than doubled, but many homes are designed and built with little understanding of the reality of life in a fire zone. “Driving through the woods, I would say half to three-fourths of the homes in northern Idaho are at significant risk,” Schnepf proclaimed.

    A big part of that risk revolves around access– the road your car can barely navigate may be impossible for fire-fighting equipment to move through. When creating new roads on private property, the wise owner will allow for such access.

     Homeowners should also remember that wind is one of the greatest fire-related dangers. “Fires need air to continue burning, and large fires need a lot of air,” says the Federal Office of Emergency Management. “Wind can cause wildfires to grow quickly, to die down, to change direction, or even to move downhill as fast as they do uphill. Burning leaves can be deposited on and around structures (and) these spot fires can grow.”

    This is yet another area where the Firewise concept of “defensible space,” comes into play, by careful consideration of prevailing wind patterns on your property, and the planting of wind breaks that could make a huge difference in defending your property during fire seasons.

    Landscape designer Barb Pressler, who works part time for All Seasons Garden Center in Kootenai, and takes on a few landscaping projects on her own each year, envisions people going even further when planning landscaping for fire reduction. Her advice? Water and concrete.

    “Every single piece of property out there is suitable for some type of water feature,” she said, whether it’s a small as a bird bath, or as large as a pond that’s 10 or more feet deep. And before you wonder just how much good a bird bath is going to do you in fire season, listen to Pressler’s defense of waterscaping. “Adding water to your garden plan offers numerous benefits,” she said. “Most obvious, of course, is having an additional source of water should fire threaten your property. But there’s much more than that.

    “Water can transform your property. It’s soothing and peaceful, attracts all kinds of wildlife and beneficial birds, bats and butterflies, and adds moisture to your property.” After installing a pond at her own home, Pressler says it’s become a favored spot for wildlife in town. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a hummingbird use a waterfall to bathe,” she said, “and I could probably fill a bird book with all the different species I’ve seen. They come to my pond now to drink, bathe, and teach their fledglings how to catch bugs.”

    Along with a pond design, Pressler advocates plantings, especially native ones, that have relatively low demands for water. “People don’t recognize what a precious resource water is,” she said. And plants with low water needs are less likely to become dried out, and then good fuel for fire.

    Pressler also recommends people consider concrete for their outdoor entertainment areas. “I know wooden decks are kind of a “thing” for this area,” she said, “but why put all that burnable wood next to your home? Concrete is fire resistant, and beautiful as well.” Especially once Pressler gets her hands on it, as is shown by the acid-etched and decorated concrete deck at her home in Sandpoint.  “Instead of putting everything into decorating your living room, why not focus as well on decorating the outside, and creating an outdoor living area?”

    She’s a big fan, as well, of the use of natural stone, another material that resists fire and helps to retain moisture in an area. “I think stone is the backbone of a garden,” she said. “It provides moisture to your plants, gives extra seating. It’s harmonious to the surroundings and it doesn’t burn.”

    Doesn’t burn. When it comes to life in a fire zone, even if that fire zone is only an occasional one, those are important words.             

    “People have this kind of Mozart view of nature as this calm, tranquil presence,” Schnepf said. “But forest ecology in north Idaho was often more like Stravinsky than Mozart, music written for the Russian Revolution with cannons and stuff.” With proper landscaping, however, it’s possible to keep that symphony at a comfortable distance.


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Landon Otis

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