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Firefighters advise creating 100 feet of defensible space around structures.

Within the first 30 feet extending out from buildings:

- Remove all dead vegetation.
- Remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters.
- Trim trees regularly to keep branches a minimum of 10 feet from other trees.
- Remove branches that hang over your roof and keep dead branches 10 feet away from your chimney.
- Relocate wood piles outside 30-foot buffer zone.
- Remove or prune flammable plants and shrubs near windows.
- Remove vegetation and items that could catch fire from around and under decks.
- Create a separation between trees, shrubs and items that could catch fire, such as patio furniture, wood piles, swing sets, etc.
- When clearing vegetation, use care when operating equipment such as lawnmowers. One small spark may start a fire; a string trimmer is safer

See more at: www.readyforwildfire.org
SOURCE: Cal Fire

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.

With that in mind, land managers across the county have been at work this year, seeking to tip the balance of fire factors in their favor.

At Sonoma Land Trust’s Little Black Mountain Preserve north of Jenner, the work has included thinning dense forest and brush that have grown back since the Creighton Ridge fire swept over the property in 1978.

“We’re creating forests that are more resilient to fire,” said Neale, the land trust stewardship director. “The idea is to make sure the fire doesn’t spread to private landowners.”

The organization is removing many of the small trees, as well as dead ones, leaving larger ones to cast shade and prevent the growth of more dense brush. The thinning also makes for a healthier forest, Neale said.

“It’s really important for the Sonoma Land Trust, as a conservation landowner of many acres in the county, to be on top of doing our part to make sure forests stay healthy and do the work that can help reduce wildfire through a sustainable process,” Neale said.

The land trust also worked with Cal Fire to create a fire management plan for the preserve, placed a 5,000-gallon water tank on the property, and cleared fire hazards away from the few buildings on the 500-acre spread, including a caretaker’s home.

The group is taking what it learned at Little Black Mountain to other preserves around the county, Neale said.

Such collaborations are part of Cal Fire’s approach to the drought, said Wilson, who coordinates vegetation management for the agency’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit. He said he’s been asking battalion chiefs who oversee various regions in the county to work closely with land managers to ensure projects like the one in Bennett Valley move forward.

A similar effort, albeit on a much larger property, is happening on the Jenner Headlands, the 5,600-acre preserve that crowns the coast just north of the Russian River’s mouth.

The preserve, managed by the Wildlands Conservancy in cooperation with Sonoma Land Trust, borders the town of Jenner as well as subdivisions on Muniz Ranch and Magic Mountain roads, making the need to prevent huge fires even more important.

The conservancy has begun thinning trees from the property’s eastern ridge to create a shaded fuel break.

The Magic Mountain subdivision lies on the other side of the ridge. In 1978, firefighters were able to stop the Creighton Ridge fire at the ridgeline thanks to the fire break. It was later abandoned, but the conservancy began restoring it last fall.

“It turns out to be good timing with the drought,” said Brook Edwards, who manages the preserve.

Edwards and others said fire prevention is not just an activity for the drought years: It’s an ongoing aspect of managing land in Sonoma County.

Bert Whitaker, who manages operations for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said, “From the county’s perspective, we’re in a drought, but every year there’s a fire season. There’s a lot of things we’ve continually done.”

The drought has prompted the parks department to clear weeds and other potential fire hazards earlier in the summer than usual, Whitaker said. The jump start mirrors the advice fire officials give property owners, who are urged to trim and clear debris around homes early in the year to limit the risk of fire from the spark of a lawn mower or saw. Throughout the year, such work should take place on cool, still days before 10 a.m.

For the other large county land management agency — the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which manages about 5,500 acres and oversees conservation easements on many other properties — the approach to fire prevention involves close work with landowners, including many ranchers.

Much of the acreage the district oversees is grassland and is managed on a regular basis by grazing, said Sheri Emerson, stewardship program manager for the district.

The agency take steps throughout the year to make sure ranchers and other landowners it works with are keeping fire hazards under control.

“We’re fortunate,” Emerson said. “Nine times out of 10, (the landowners) are so responsible, they want to take care of the land.”

Still, in putting a damper on fire danger, land managers and owners also are faced with a tough question: How heavy of a hand should they apply to logging and other intervention while trying to preserve open space in its natural state?

“We’re always striving for a balance,” said Cyndy Shafer, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks.

In some cases, the two objectives complement each other. State Parks regularly removes unwanted, invasive plants, which also can help reduce the vegetation that fuels big fires. That includes thinning fir seedlings at Annadel and Sugarloaf state parks. Those young trees can serve as hazardous “ladder fuels,” which allow a fire to climb from a low flames at the forest floor into a hot blaze in the canopies of trees, Shafer said.

But other means of fire prevention, such as fire breaks, can be at odds with land preservation, she said.

“If you look statewide, you have a lot of parks with developments very close to park boundaries,” she said. “There would be too great an impact to resources if we had fuel breaks around every park.”

In the Bennett Ridge community that abuts Annadel, homeowners make sure they keep their yards mowed and clear of debris, said Jensen, the neighborhood resident.

“We emphasize that a lot,” she said. “You see it more and more, people building out in the woods. It’s delightful, but you have to always be real concerned about fire. You have do everything you can to protect yourself.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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