A coalition of agencies and volunteers is hoping that firewise gardens can help Westerners reduce the growing threat that wildfires pose in this country.
The Firewise Garden at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise is the first of a series of demonstration gardens showing homeowners how they can live on the edge of the wildlands safely and beautifully. Visitors today can see the mockorange shrubs - a cousin of Idaho's state flower, the syringa - blooming in the June heat next to flowering prickly pear cactus, yellow blanket flowers and pink soapwort.
"The home site, which is what we call the first garden now that we have spread out, took us seven years to get it looking like it does now," said Brett Van Paepeghem, a former Bureau of Land Management fire staffer who now runs Idaho Firewise, the nonprofit group coordinating the gardens.
The Firewise Garden was born out of the 2000 fire season, the worst at the time since 1910. Seven million acres burned and fires caused $10 billion in losses - including entire neighborhoods in Los Alamos, N.M. BLM botanist Roger Rosentreter, now retired, got the idea from a similar garden he saw in San Diego.
The plants there would not grow in Idaho's climate. So he and Van Paepeghem convinced the BLM to partner with Boise State University, the Idaho Botanical Garden and later the College of Western Idaho to build the garden in what once was an ugly weed patch. With volunteers and interns, they have developed the garden into a three-zoned area that shows how to make a yard less flammable and easier to protect if a wildfire were to race through the cheatgrass that covers the Boise Foothills.
Zone 1, the area within 30 feet of a house, is planted in grass. As Ann DeBolt, Rosentreter's wife and a botanist with the Idaho Botanical Garden, said, "That's where you have your patio."
Zone 2, the area 30 to 60 feet from a house, has low shrubs and fire-resistant plants such as silver-edged horehound, autumn amber, mockorange and flowering quince.
"One thing I like to promote are dwarf shrubs," said Rosentreter. "We want stuff in Zone 2 that's compact."
Zone 3, the area 60 to 100 feet from a house, can be left with existing plants, shrub and trees. Homeowners are encouraged to prune the overhanging limbs and to thin the brush so that if a fire enters this area, it doesn't climb into the trees. Traditional conifers such as pine trees and firs, which are filled with resin, can be replaced with larch and tamarack, which look the same but are far less flammable.
"The needles don't burn, they smolder," Rosentreter said.
The "home site" serves another important purpose, DeBolt said. More than 300 different varieties of plants have been tested here to see whether they survive in Idaho's climate. New gardens in Twin Falls, Mountain Home, Eagle and elsewhere are growing the database of fire-resistant species available to homeowners.
"This whole garden started out because there wasn't a lot of literature for this area," DeBolt said.
Now that he's retired, Rosentreter lectures across the West on fire, rangelands and home protection. He and Van Paepeghem are taking the firewise message wherever they can, not only to help make people safer and their yards more beautiful, but also to help reduce the costs of fighting fires.
The nation is spending more than $1 billion annually on wildfires - mostly in the West - as climate change has helped make recent fire seasons longer and hotter. Most of that money is spent to protect homes and communities, costs that could be dramatically reduced if developments next to wildlands were designed like the Firewise Garden.
It's a message that has finally caught on.
"Homeowners need to start first in protecting outward," Van Paepeghem said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484