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During 37 years with the Monte Rio Fire Protection District, I have learned that fire doesn't care. It doesn't care about the homes it destroys, the wildlife habitat it chars, the forest it decimates. Fire feeds on and searches out fuel sources -- most typically dense, dry or dead vegetation. If you live in the middle of or near such a source, then fire will find you sooner or later.

Thirty years ago, when I was starting out as a firefighter in this county, our ability to fight wildland fires was significantly hampered by a lack of access roads. No access meant thick brush on the forest floor -- prime stomping grounds for a massive fire.

Since then, timber harvesting operations have improved our ability to contain and fight destructive blazes. And they have reduced fuel loads that might otherwise feed a fire. But as recent events in San Diego, San Bernardino and Lake Tahoe have shown us, Californians need to remain ever vigilant.

And now here in Monte Rio we need to be honest about the danger we face in our own backyard. We haven't built this town to what it is by being anything less than serious about fire prevention.

Homeowners and landowners all over California face increasing liability for failing to manage their holdings responsibly to reduce the risk of fire. In our corner of Sonoma County, the Bohemian Club is no different, having applied for a non-industrial timber management plan to reduce the fuel load in its 2,700-acre forest.

I am writing in support of Bohemian Club's plans, which will be considered by the state Department of Forestry at a hearing on Thursday. I believe the plans are in the best interest of public safety for Monte Rio and surrounding communities. This isn't a political argument, this is common sense.

By some estimates there are as many as 8,000 dead oak trees on the Bohemian Grove property, representing a prime fuel source and a major threat. I helped fight fires in San Bernardino twice where trees killed by a beetle infestation -- but left standing -- served to keep fires burning thousands of acres. Now sudden oak death has moved here, killing trees that without proper harvesting will raise the chances of a destructive blaze.

I'm in the business of encouraging landowners to responsibly manage their properties to reduce fire danger. The Bohemian Club is doing what it should in proposing thinning operations in their forest.

What they want to do will help us create fire breaks and better access for fire crews in the event of a blaze, lessen the danger of a fire spreading from the grove, clear crowded brush and address the problem of dead trees. And it is a real problem, folks.

We know what happens when a fire finds a crowded, under-managed forest to sustain it. This fire will keep burning until it's at your front door -- or mine. This is our wake-up call. We all should do our part to clear brush and trees to keep safe not only our homes but our entire community and our way of life.

Long ago, the native peoples who called Sonoma County home routinely burned portions of the forest to improve and enrich soil. These relatively small fires helped reduce brush and smaller trees while posing little threat to towering redwoods protected by their thick bark. Today those redwoods, many of them hundreds or thousands of years old, remain. But in places like the Bohemian Grove, overgrown vegetation poses a very real threat to these giants of the forest.

Please join me in supporting responsible forest management practices at the Bohemian Grove and elsewhere in Sonoma County.

The basic facts are indisputable: forests left to grow without proper thinning pose an enormous fire danger. Better spacing of trees in a forest promotes healthier conditions suitable for new growth and wildlife habitat.

Will it take a destructive or deadly fire in Sonoma County to demonstrate the foresight of the Bohemian Grove's application for a timber management plan? I certainly hope not.

Steve Baxman is Monte Rio Fire chief.

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