Boise & Garden City

Boise looks to team up with landowners to fight fire, invasive plants in Foothills

Boise Parks and Recreation has given seven homeowners permission to cut down grasses and weeds in city-owned open space reserves just outside their properties, said Sara Arkle, the department’s open space senior manager.

Some homeowners have been doing this already on what’s known as the wildland-urban interface — the boundary between developed and undeveloped land — even though it’s illegal. Brett Hutcheson was once one of them.

Hutcheson built his home on the edge of Boise’s Oregon Trail Reserve in Southeast Boise in 2003. For several years after that, he weed-whacked the weeds and grasses 20 to 25 feet into the public land just north of his property, creating a fire break.

Four or five years later, he said, he received a letter from Parks and Recreation threatening legal action if he persisted. Hutcheson said he stopped cutting the fire break, and the weeds returned. Frustrated about the growing fire risk, he asked Parks and Recreation to do something.

Last fall, the city gave Hutcheson permission to resume weed-cutting behind his house as long as he followed guidelines for when and how he could do it. He said he hauled away 12 pickup loads of grasses, weeds and limbs he’d removed from the renewed fire break.

HOW IT WOULD WORK

Hutcheson’s weed-whacking permission is not a permit.

The city hasn’t authorized an official policy that would enable permits for the kind of activity Hutcheson and six other homeowners are allowed to do.

But Arkle has been working on exactly that kind of policy for about a year now. Its unofficial name is the Citizen Fuel Reduction Policy. Arkle said she knows of no other city in the country that has enacted such a measure.

If approved, the Citizen Fuel Reduction Policy would allow individual homeowners, neighborhood associations and homeowner associations to submit plans for the removal of grasses and other fuels — but not sage brush, bitter brush or other shrubs — from a 20-foot strip of public land immediately outside their private property.

To avoid sparking fires, private property owners could use only plastic string in weed trimmers and would have to bag and remove any material they cut down, Arkle said. The city would allow cutting only during nonpeak fire season, between Oct. 1 and June 30.

Parks and Recreation would work with the applicants to make sure their plans will do what they’re supposed to. Arkle also wants to ensure their activity doesn’t spread invasive plant species like cheat grass and medusahead.

“It’s kind of like the ‘do no harm’ principle,” Arkle said. “Let’s make sure we’re managing for fire risk but not increasing invasive species.”

SPECIES WAR

Fire in the Foothills is common in the summer, when hot temperatures, dry grasses and, sometimes, wind make flames quick to spread and hard to stop.

The two most famous and destructive fires in the past decade were 2008’s Oregon Trail Fire, which killed a Boise State University professor and burned 19 homes; and the Table Rock Fire one year ago, which burned a home and more than 2,500 acres around the popular Table Rock recreation area. The 8th Street Fire that started at the police shooting range in Military Reserve burned 22 square miles in 1996.

Slowing wildfire goes hand-in-hand with fighting invasive species.

Grasses that are native to the Boise Foothills, such as Sandberg bluegrass and needle-and-thread grass, tend to grow in bunches instead of carpet-like formations that characterize invasive species. Bunch grasses slow down fire and can keep it from spreading.

Arkle hopes to someday augment the fuel-reduction policy by providing seeds for native plants to homeowners who can use them in the fire breaks they mow around their yards. Money is the obstacle.

The Bureau of Land Management’s local office gave Boise $93,000 for fire mitigation this year. But the city already spent that money to remove dead and downed woody material, build fire breaks, mow and apply herbicide in reserves like Hulls Gulch, Military Reserve and Oregon Trail. There won’t be any left over for native seed this year at least.

Josh Renz, fire mitigation education specialist for the BLM, said Arkle’s seeding idea could have promise.

“In the future, if that’s what she would like to see done, that’s a discussion between her and us to see the viability of such a project,” Renz said.

But there’s more to growing native plants than just throwing seeds on the ground. Hutcheson said the city gave him some seed to plant last fall, but very little of it took root.

FEDERAL INPUT

The BLM has been involved in the Citizen Fuel Reduction Policy since Parks and Recreation started working on it.

It’s not an unusual alliance. Besides giving Boise grant money, the agency is also Boise’s partner in Ridge to Rivers, a cooperation of local and federal governments that manages trails in the Foothills.

So many public and private groups and individuals own land in the Foothills that formulating a unifying policy for reducing fire fuels is complicated, said Tate Fischer, head of the local BLM office. BLM itself doesn’t manage much ground in the wildland-urban interface.

Boise owns a lot of that land, so it can more effectively take the lead on fuel reduction there, Renz said.

Both Renz and Fischer praised Boise Parks and Recreation, Arkle in particular, for taking on the fuels reduction initiative thoughtfully and asking experts for guidance on how to craft and implement the policy. That approach should minimize the ever-present risk of unintended consequences, they said.

“They’re doing it very responsibly,” Fischer said. “There’s no way the BLM can’t support projects such as this. We will definitely do whatever we can to assist.”

ANOTHER ARROW

As much as she wants the Citizens Fuel Reduction Policy to succeed, Arkle admits it won’t stop fire or invasive species on its own.

Instead, it can be one component of a multi-pronged effort that includes the mowing, seeding and other work the city has been doing for years, she said. It could be a particularly efficient initiative, though, because it enlists private landowners to do the kind of work Parks and Recreation would do if it had enough resources. The proposal, as it stands now, would require no specifically allocated city money, Arkle said.

At a more fundamental level, Arkle hopes the policy will encourage participants to think not just about fire risks on public land, but also more deliberately about fuels on their own properties and to consider landscaping that doubles as a fire break.

“A lot of these older developments have junipers and evergreens that are on their properties that are tinder boxes,” she said. “We want to encourage people to take the steps that they can on their own properties and then use (the fuels reduction policy) as a secondary way to reduce the threat of fire. So all of this was built around just generally improving people’s understanding of fire mitigation.”

The city would not assign its own personnel to make sure participants are doing the work as required in the permit, Arkle said. She hopes homeowners, homeowner associations and neighborhood associations will police themselves. But Parks and Recreation employees often work in the Foothills and other open space reserves, she said, and would keep an eye on participants’ fire breaks and permit holders accountable.

Arkle introduced the outlines of the policy to the City Council early this year. She hopes to present a final proposed version for a vote in mid-July.

How to protect your home from wildfire

Flood season is ending, so wildfire season is upon us. Both the materials that make up your home and the area around it can be the difference between surviving a wildfire and losing the house.

Materials

If you’re building or retrofitting a home near open, undeveloped ground such as the Boise Foothills, it’s a good idea to use fire-resistant materials. The following recommendations are from Idaho Firewise, a nonprofit that encourages statewide wildfire education. For more information, visit IdahoFirewise.org.

Roofs: Use concrete or clay tiles, brick, slate, fiber-cement products, metal or fiberglass composition shingles.

Windows: Double-paned windows made of tempered glass are the most fire-resistant. Replace plastic screens with metal screens to keep embers out.

Chimneys: Clean and inspect at least once a year. Install spark arresters.

Decks and siding: Use fire- and heat-resistant materials such as cement, plaster, stucco, masonry (including stone bricks or blocks) and fiber-cement products. If your home’s siding is a combustible material like wood, look for and repair openings that could allow embers inside the structure.

Enclose areas under decks, stairways, and overhangs with one-eighth-inch wire mesh to prevent embers from entering.

Survivable space

Everything within 200 feet of a home is known as the “ignition zone.” Within this area, there are three zones, each with its own guidelines on how to minimize the risk of fire reaching the house. Here are guidelines for each zone from Firewise USA and the Boise Fire Department:

Zone 1 extends 30 feet outward from the house and attachments such as decks, boardwalks and fences.

This is the most important zone for most homes on Boise’s wildland-urban interface, said Jerry McAdams, wildfire mitigation coordinator for the Boise Fire Department. People who live in this zone should remove all conifers or replace them with deciduous trees, which are less flammable, McAdams said.

Don’t grow any ornamental grasses, such as pampas grass, within 5 feet of the home. Space all plants in Zone 1 carefully, using low-growing vegetation that’s free of resins, oil and waxes.

Mow regularly. Remove low tree branches so that the lowest remaining ones are 6 to 10 feet off the ground. Trim branches that hang over the house. Remove fuels such as dead vegetation, firewood stacks and propane tanks.

Use nonflammable landscaping or high-moisture annuals and perennials. Water plants, trees and mulch regularly. Use xeriscaping if water is scarce.

Zone 2 covers the distance between 30 and 100 feet away from the home. Clear 30-foot spaces between clusters of two or three trees in this area, or 20 feet between individual trees.

Employ a mixture of deciduous trees and conifers. Build fuel breaks such as driveways, gravel walkways and lawns. Remove low branches so that the lowest remaining ones are 6 to 10 feet off the ground.

Zone 3 is the space located between 100 and 200 feet from the home. This area should be thinned, though less space is needed than in Zone 2.

Remove small conifers growing between more mature trees. Remove heavy accumulation of woody debris. Reduce the density of tall trees so that canopies don’t touch.

For more information on these zones and protecting your home, visit IdahoStatesman.com to download Firewise USA’s landscaping and construction guide.

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