It’s not an easy feat for a neighborhood to earn Firewise designation by the Florida Forest Service, and Hidden Dunes is the first neighborhood in Walton County to do it.
The 27-acre Miramar Beach neighborhood will celebrate the accomplishment with a day of festivities Oct. 11.
A Firewise designation is bestowed upon communities that “have taken steps to become more resistant to wildfire structural damage,” according to Forestry literature.
Longtime Hidden Dunes resident Bill Kern said one particularly challenging aspect of attaining the Firewise status was maintaining the natural beauty of Hidden Dunes, while mitigating the fire risk.
It was this natural beauty that drew the 20-year, part-time resident to the area in the first place after a two-year search for the perfect second home.
“It was the only place in all that search where a developer had left the natural environment in place,” said Kern of the Carolina cottages strategically placed among the palmetto bushes, pine and oak trees. “It was just beautiful, lots of walking paths. It’s really a neat place.”
However, living in a place with a lot of natural vegetation can pose a serious fire risk, according to Brian Goddin with Florida Forest Service.
“A lot of these South Walton Communities have thick vegetation,” said Goddin. “Walton County is one of our greatest challenges.”
Kern agreed. “You don’t have to look too hard to find jungle areas,” he said, adding that the vegetation prompted the neighborhood to start making efforts to mitigate its fire risk almost a decade ago.
“We started probably eight, nine years ago with a definite project, to clear out a wildfire area,” said Kern, who admits the foliage was a bit overgrown. “You couldn’t see from one beach cottage to the next. It was a mini-jungle.”
It was after a meeting in April 2011, however, that he really pushed his neighbors forward with fire-proofing Hidden Dunes.
“Brian (Goddin) and the district fire chief put on a communitywide fire mitigation seminar at the South Walton firehouse,” said Kern.
Kern said the meeting brought to light potentially devastating risks.
“If lightning strikes … you could have a major blaze,” he said, point out that they have more than 100 beach cottages.
The community spent countless hours pruning back the more “jungle-like” areas, manicuring bushes, and adding at-the-ready hoses in the common areas.
Kern said the cleaning up has mitigated the greatest risk of fire in the neighborhood, but it hasn’t sacrificed the neighborhood’s aesthetic.
“We haven’t taken out all of the vegetation. It doesn’t look like it’s manicured — it does look like it’s under control,” said Kern.
The hard work will be recognized by the state for its effort to minimize the risk of fire in Hidden Dunes.
“It doesn’t meant we are being perfect; it means we are a community that cares about this,” said Kern.
Both Goddin and Kern hope the Firewise designation gives other communities a push toward making positive changes with fire mitigation.
“Any community can do it, they don’t have to be perfect,” said Goddin, adding that even Hidden Dunes could improve with simple measures such as replacing pine straw near the homes’ foundations, as well as installing a finer grade grate under homes.
But for now, it’s just time to enjoy the minimal risk of wildfire within the Hidden Dunes gates.
A celebration will begin at 10 a.m. with the presentation of a Firewise certification plaque at the neighborhood’s community center, followed by a tour of the Hidden Dunes property.
For more information about Firewise and Florida Forest Service, call Goddin at 625-6621 or visit firewise.org.