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Demonstration garden teaches homeowners how to prepare for wildfire

A garden of plants with a metal sign that reads "2 Zone."
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
The Idaho Firewise demonstration garden in Boise is divided into three zones, each of which is full of a number of appropriate, fire-conscious plant species and based on distance from the home.

Wildfire season is now in full swing. Dozens of uncontrolled large fires are burning across the country and the news is full of images of destroyed homes, but in Idaho, there’s a group showing homeowners how to keep their property safe.

“If the property has been well maintained and green, the fire can lay down, lay down and stop,” said Brett Van Paepeghem, Southern Idaho project manager for Idaho Firewise, which runs a demonstration garden in Boise.

“This actually was put to a test a couple of years ago. We had what was called the Table Rock Fire ... and it burned right down to the back of this garden. We were lucky.”

Idaho Firewise's southern Idaho project manager Brett Van Paepeghem
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
Idaho Firewise's southern Idaho project manager Brett Van Paepeghem

But also prepared. The garden is full of vibrant, drought-tolerant plants and landscaping techniques that can halt an advancing blaze.

Closest to the home, in what the group calls Zone 1, Van Paepeghem recommended gravel and grasses that need little water to stay green. In front of the greenhouse, there are small plots of different species, arranged from most to least drought-tolerant.

In front of the greenhouse at the demonstration garden, there are small plots of different species, arranged from most to least drought-tolerant.
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
In front of the greenhouse at the demonstration garden, there are small plots of different species, arranged from most to least drought-tolerant.

“These warm season grasses are going to stay green with far less water than the cool season grasses, and … the … commonly used Kentucky bluegrass,” he said.

For five to 30 feet from the house – or Zone 2 – he recommended low-growing shrubs or perennials like stonecrops.

'Autumn Joy' Stonecrop
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
'Autumn Joy' Stonecrop

“It's very difficult to burn plants like this that have these supple, succulent leaves with lots of moisture in there,” he said.

Fruit trees and other deciduous trees – though not conifers – can also be used in this area. Among the garden’s many charming features is an arch tangled with Concord grape vines.

Paepeghem described Zone 3 – from 30 to 60 feet, or beyond – as a transition area.

“We're transitioning into the wildlands,” he said. “And here we're going to run into our native … plants like sagebrush, or rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, some of these wonderful native plants [that] are on the more flammable side and they're okay out here in this Zone 3 area.”

What you won’t see in any of the zones are plants or trees with combustible resins and oils, like junipers. Van Paepeghem said they “ignite really easily and burn really hot.”

Fire conscious landscaping can have a reputation as being austere, even unsightly, composed of little more than grassless gravel areas or xeriscaping. Part of the idea of the demonstration garden was to colorfully defy those sorts of ideas with some 350 different species.

“I like to think that it's very attractive,” Van Paepeghem said. “It's very colorful with something blooming from the earliest spring until late fall.”

Desert Four'o'clock
Murphy Woodhouse
/
Boise State Public Radio
Desert Four'o'clock

Over his decades living in Idaho, he said wildfires have become a more intense presence.

“[Wildfire has] been here long before we came along and it will continue on,” he said. “It's not going away and we need to learn to live with it.”

To learn more about the demonstration garden and other ways to help prepare your property for wildfire, visit idahofirewise.org.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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