EAGLE, Idaho —
When fully built out, Avimor plans to build about 10,000 homes, spanning 35 square miles, and leaving thousands of acres for open space and trails.
“The foothills make it so beautiful. I can go out my back door and I'm on a trail,” a resident of Avimor, Sharon Kerbow said. "They are so ahead of everyone else; I think and there's no place I'd rather live. I love it here.”
The community is nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of western Idaho’s high desert along Highway 55. But living in the foothills also means living in a fire-prone region.
As we recognize “Wildfire Awareness Month,” and as the 2022 fire season nears, KTVB looks at the innovative ways Avimor is trying to prevent and protect against wildfires.
“It's one of the first things we asked because coming from a state where it was a concern, a lot of concern, then that was one of our questions,” Kerbow said.
As fire seasons are becoming longer and hotter, wildfires are capable of devastating communities across the country. At the same time, a growing number of people are living in landscapes where fire poses serious risks. Landscapes like the foothills north of Eagle, where dry vegetation creates combustible fuels for fast-moving fires.
As more development spreads into the wildland-urban interface (WUI) Eagle Fire District Chief Tyler Lewis is concerned about how wildfires can impact the growing community.
“We know the catastrophic fires that can happen when we get wind-driven events,” Chief Lewis said. “That's our number one concern when we see these developments going in there. Some of the other concerns have to do with the distance from our other resources.”
The fire district requires developments in the foothills to have a wildfire mitigation plan.
“We're trying to get ahead of it and figure out what we can do to slow those fires down when they start, give us a chance to be able to catch them and get them suppressed as quickly as possible,” Chief Lewis said.
Living With Wildfire
Avimor invested in a conservation director to keep the 23 thousand acre community free of wildfires.
“When you have development, as Avimor does, where conservation is at the center of it, then you can have development and conservation in concert with each other, which I think is what we want in the foothills for sure,” Avimor’s Conservation Director, Zoe Tinkle Duran said. “At Avimor, they're not really living in the foothills, they're living with the foothills. And so that is living with wildfire.”
Because fire is native to the foothills’ ecosystem, Duran said we need to expect it.
“It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” Duran said. “The best thing that we can do in our homes is to make sure that we have survivable spaces. And so that's where that Firewise component comes in.”
Firewise USA, a national program combining efforts of homeowners, community leaders, and developers to stop wildland fires before they can start, has recognized Avimor since it first broke ground. The program educates and equips people with the tools to save lives and property by creating ‘survivable spaces.’
“[Survivable spaces] can be landscaping. So if you look around to some of the landscaping we have here, in some of this new development, we will see a lot of rock mulch, you'll see sparsely vegetated areas,” Duran said. “It's about the species of plant, but it's also about how it's spaced in the home.”
Avimor uses firewise components in all that it does, from the landscaping to the building materials used for homes.
“Our siding is all cementitious, so it's made out of the cement product,” said Dan Richter, the managing partner of Avimor. “The venting into the attics are all specified so embers aren't going to creep into the attic and start a fire in the attic.”
Research shows wind-tossed embers, and small flames from ground fires, pose the biggest threat to homes and businesses in the WUI.
The area surrounding a home, from within five feet of the home to 200 feet away, is called the ‘Home Ignition Zone.’ The immediate zone, the area within five feet around a house, and the structure itself, is the most important zone because that is the most vulnerable to embers. The area of 5-30 feet from the home is called the intermediate zone, which is where careful landscaping and breaks to decrease fire behavior come into play. The extended zone stretches 30-200 feet away from the home, in that zone, the goal is to interrupt a fire’s path and keep flames small through the landscape.
“We want to think about the connectivity between our wildland interface and the fuels in the siding of our house,” said Duran. “The general rule is to try to keep the zero to five feet fuels free. That doesn't mean you can't have any plant life. But to make sure that it's Firewise compatible plant: low stature and keeping it lean, clean and green.”
Avimor built berms and mows along Highway 55, where fires often start. Trails serve as fire breaks and allow access for first responders. Ponds and green spaces are scattered throughout the community.
“You put your parks into places it'll slow things down. You put your trails in places it'll slow things down, you try to mitigate as much as possible,” said Richter. “All of the homes that back up to the interface areas get inspected by our conservation director every five years to make sure they've not made any changes that make it more susceptible to wildfire.”
Avimor has also invested in a slope mower to keep flames from racing down steep slopes.
“We mow a lot of the slopes that are a direct interface with a lot of our homes,” said Richter.
Sheep and cattle also graze in the area to help control fuels.
Avimor and the Eagle Fire Department work closely together to stop catastrophic fires.
“We planted a forage kochia plant, which is resistant to the fire. And so, we built it five miles long, 30 foot wide all the way around Avimor,” Chief Lewis said.
The forage kochia serves as a fire break, so crews can catch up with a potential fire.
“The idea there is it'll spread out and take the moisture and water out of the ground for that plant, which will choke out all the flashing fuels which we're seeing right now, which are cheatgrass,” Chief Lewis said.
Planting forage kochia also helps the community remove highly combustible invasive species.
“We can look to see like where do we have maybe invasive nonnative annual grasses, those are highly combustible and can carry fire long ways,” Duran said. “Let's identify where those areas are and do proactive restoration on those areas just so we can kind of stop the fire at its ignition source.”
Chief Lewis expects to plant more forage kochia in other places across the foothills.
Avimore has also ensured there are access roads so that first responders can easily reach potential fires in the surrounding foothills.
“We work with the eagle fire district and make sure we've got accessible areas, multiple ways in and out ways to get actually right to the interface,” Richter said. “As a matter of fact, some of the roads that are back there are for two-wheelers or, ranch roads, we go through and regularly grade them because sometimes they get eroded. And to make them accessible so that the fire department can get their equipment deployed back there if a fire was coming from that direction.”
Access roads also act as fuel breaks, preventing wildfires from spreading to further vegetation.
“They've integrated wildland fire and wildlife management into every step along the way,” Duran said. “You have a lot of power as a homeowner to follow these Firewise components and these Firewise elements to not only help yourself but help those around you.”
Avimor wants to make sure homeowners never feel powerless in the face of a wildfire.
“I've been here through two fires, and at no time was I concerned that we were in danger. The fire department was amazing. All the area around our house is Firewise,” Kerbow said.
“This is the model that we want to see be put out there,” Lewis said “They've worked and they've been a partner with everything.”
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