The residents of Bennett Ridge, a community situated on a steep, wooded hillside on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, live with the specter of wildfire this time of year. Like many in Sonoma County near the edge of forests or pastures, they watch the grass turn matchstick dry as the summer wears on and wonder what the days ahead may hold, recalling the devastating blazes of years past.
“There’s lots of trees, and the fires just rush up these hills,” said Merilee Jensen, who lives on the ridge between Bennett Valley Road and Annadel State Park. She remembered watching flames, started near Bennett Valley Road by an arsonist, race up the hillside toward her home about 20 years ago.
“We were all panicky. It was really scary,” she said. “We were up on our roofs spraying them.”
Firefighters stopped the blaze before it reached the neighborhood, but that fire and others like it prompted residents to get together about a decade ago and raise money to clear a fire buffer between the road and their houses, Jensen said.
This year, funding raised by a controversial state fee on property owners in rural, fire-prone areas enabled Cal Fire, the state agency, to carry on that work for the homeowners. Last week, the agency sent a crew of 14 prisoners in orange jumpsuits to clear shrubs and saw down limbs along a 1-mile stretch of Bennett Valley Road.
That project is among efforts that government agencies, nonprofit groups and homeowners are making to reduce the risk of a devastating wildfire on open space around the county. And in this dry year, they’re working with greater urgency as the wildfire season peaks early and is expected to last longer, according to Cal Fire officials.
“It’s a challenge we’re all facing,” said Bob Neale, stewardship director at the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit land conservation group that manages about 6,600 acres throughout the county. “Three years of drought get us all pretty nervous and hyper-aware of the fire situation.”
The risk of fire running rampant over natural areas is not a new one in Sonoma County or along the North Coast. Flames, whether natural or human-caused, have long singed or scorched forests and grasslands in the region.
But with development now pushed up against open lands that used to be remote, and with many of those areas filled with brush parched by the state’s extended drought, the potential for destructive wildfire may never have been greater.
Add in summer heat, winds and rugged terrain, and you get conditions that fire officials acknowledge can make even the best preparations ineffective in a raging wildfire.
“Sometimes you can do everything and it still doesn’t work,” Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said. “That’s just Mother Nature.”
In Sonoma County, such blazes are seared into collective memory. They include the 1964 Hanly fire that raced from the slope of Mount St. Helena into Calistoga and the northeastern outskirts of Santa Rosa, burning 52,700 acres and dozens of homes before it was stopped by firefighters. Fourteen years later, the Creighton Ridge fire burned more than 11,000 acres of timberland and destroyed 64 homes in the Cazadero area.
Such conflagrations are rare, constituting less than 5 percent of fires the state tracks, Wilson said. Prevention work and quick response help limit the frequency of big fires, he said.