As Sonoma County tries to prevent its scorched landscape from contaminating local watersheds, government officials are exploring additional measures to help the environment withstand another major firestorm, including a possible expansion of controlled burns and rules requiring more landowners clear defensible space around their homes.
Crews are already installing gauges around the major burn zones from the October wildfires to monitor rainfall and stream levels, aiming to develop an early-warning system for conditions that might trigger flooding and landslides.
The effort is one of several underway to defend the county’s watersheds from exposure to fire debris, especially from runoff when it rains — although precipitation this winter remains only 60 percent of average.
During a workshop on natural resources recovery Tuesday, county supervisors welcomed an update on the watershed protection efforts.
But board members pushed for additional steps as county officials craft a long-term plan geared toward recovery from October’s wildfires and resilience when future disasters strike.
“We’re coming into a fire year — another one — with very low rain,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. “I’m just saying, we have to prepare for another catastrophic fire this year. We have to be ready for it … I am far more concerned about what’s in front of us than I am about catching up what we’ve been through.”
Gore said he’s ready for his district, which spans the county’s northern areas, to expand a vegetation-management ordinance the county launched as a pilot effort on Fitch Mountain outside Healdsburg and in the Mayacamas range above Glen Ellen.
The ordinance requires residents to maintain around all structures a 30-foot space free of trees, brush and excess landscaping, among other mandates.
Gore cited the communities of Geyserville and Cloverdale as areas in his district that could benefit from an expansion of the rules.
Kerry Fugett, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, was supportive of the idea, describing it as a mechanism that could help decrease the amount of fuel available for fires — and encourage less destructive blazes when wildland areas do inevitably burn.
“The fires burned hotter and cooler in different areas, and that was due to a number of factors — you can’t just pinpoint one thing — but the fuel load is a factor in that,” Fugett said in an interview. “If it burns cooler, it’s actually going to recover just fine from the wildland perspective.”
The county already has taken some major strides toward defending its watersheds and preventing landslides in the burn zones during winter rains. In the Sonoma Valley, about 82 percent of burned structures located within 100 feet of a creek have been secured with erosion control measures such as straw-filled wattles and sandbags, according to the Sonoma Ecology Center.
“One only has to look to Montecito to see what could have been,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, referring to the recent devastating mudslides in Santa Barbara County following Southern California’s massive wildfires.
Rabbitt noted the substantial geographic differences between the two areas but said Sonoma County could have experienced a similar disaster and defensive work already accomplished helped to reduce the risks.
The board proposed several more steps to protect watersheds from fire-related damage moving forward. Rabbitt suggested controlled burns in certain areas and questioned whether the county should adopt requirements for defensive space around homes that are tailored to certain geographic areas.