When Gene and Roxy Hunter began planning the construction of their home along Starlight Drive, they took the proximity of the forest and the possibility of forest fires into consideration in every aspect of planning — from the construction of their home to the landscaping around it.
Fire-wise landscaping can play as important a role in the safety of a residence as the fire-resistant siding and roof for those living in wildland urban interfaces, according to Lt. Tim Weaver of the Rapid City Fire Department fire prevention division.
Wildland urban interfaces are residence areas where the landscaping at large can affect a structure or home. For example, with the increase in houses being built in the Black Hills, more and more homeowners find themselves living in these areas.
When the Hunters began planning the construction of their home, some fire-wise planning was obvious, as their property is surrounded by the forest. When building the home, they used fire-resistant siding and roofing. There is no wood on the house or around it.
Other choices were aimed more toward the area surrounding their home. They started by thinning out the trees on their property, removing about 100 trees.
“We knew we wanted to thin the trees out for safety reasons,” Roxy Hunter said.
From there, the Hunters decided to landscape the area surrounding their home with fire prevention in mind. The decision to use fire-wise landscaping didn’t mean that the couple would be limited in opportunities. In fact, at first glance, the gardens and landscaping surrounding their home look just like many other landscaped homes in Rapid City.
“I love gardening. I live to garden,” she said.
The property features more than 50 different plants and flowers, including roses, day lilies, salvia and lavender. There are waterfalls and multi-tiered rock formations. The landscape is varied and colorful.
“When you look at it, it looks about the same as if I lived in town,” she said. “It’s not lacking just because I took fire prevention into mind.”
“There are a lot of choices (for fire-wise landscaping). It does not mean ugly landscaping,” Weaver said. “It just means knowing which plants are fire resistant and which aren’t.”
A list of fire-resistant plants can be found at local nurseries, as well as at the Rapid City Fire Department’s website.
“Most people say, ‘I can only have three or four plants,’” Weaver said. “Not true, there’s a whole list of plant varieties available.”
Hunter admits to not always being fire-wise.
“I used to be known as the pine needle lady,” she said. “I used to collect them and place around the different (flower) beds.”
One day, Weaver stopped by and told her about the high fire danger present by having the dry needles around the property. After that, she brought in about 3,300 pounds of compost to place over the needles.
“I never realized how quickly those could go up, until Tim told me,” she said.
The Rapid City Fire Department has a program in place to provide the same type of direction Weaver provided to the Hunters. The Survivable Space Initiative gives homeowners an opportunity to have their home reviewed for free. The program’s goal is to create safe spaces around a home so that the property and homeowners are able to withstand a wildfire.
There are different steps a homeowner can take to protect their property, according to Weaver.
In the area around the home and out about 30 feet, the homeowner should have limited large trees and large shrubs. The lawn should be well manicured and watered.
“We want the home owner to have a green lawn. It’s a good buffer between the native grasses,” Weaver said.
The primary plants in this area should be those on the fire-wise plant list, which are mainly deciduous plants and perennials. Weaver said deciduous and perennials are typically well watered and fire resistant.
Weaver also recommends that homeowners don’t plant bushes under windows. If the bushes were to catch fire, the heat would break the glass and open an area for the fire to enter the home. In addition, it is recommended that bushes not be planted under the soffit areas or under decks.
Homeowners should also keep from planting conifers, which is exactly what the Hunters did.
“I stayed away from conifer bushes by the house,” she said. “There are a couple places that look somewhat bare, but I’m OK with that. It’s better to be safe.”
From the 30-foot area to about 3,200 feet out, it’s important for homeowners to take additional steps to protect their property. Weaver recommends thinning any trees on the property. In a forest fire, the fire will move through the canopy of the trees. If the trees are thinned, the fire has to drop down and become a surface fire. The manicured and well-watered lawns will then slow down the fire.
Thinning out dead materials also can help in cases where burning embers are flying through the air. If there is a large plant like a juniper or a cedar with dead material under it, the embers can catch the debris on fire and the plant and the house can go up in flames quickly.
In addition to providing free assistance to homeowners, the Rapid City Fire Department has constructed an example of fire-wise landscaping outside of Fire Station 5, 2902 Park Drive. The garden features a variety of plants and flowers that work well as fire-wise landscaping. The public is invited to stop by at any time and see the options available. There are a variety of plants in place, each labeled for reference.
“We want everyone to know that being fire-wise doesn’t mean that you can’t have a beautifully landscaped home,” Weaver said.