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Fire-safety inspections starting on 3,500 rural Sonoma County properties

For the first time, Sonoma County fire officials are inspecting thousands of rural properties this spring for compliance with tree trimming, grass cutting and other guidelines to create a firebreak around homes.

The goal of the vegetation management inspections is to establish “defensible space” around homes, making them easier to protect from wildfires.

State and local firefighters have long endorsed the concept, and Cal Fire has conducted inspections for years, but relied on voluntary compliance by landowners.

The county inspections effort, approved a year ago by the Board of Supervisors and scheduled to start in June, includes fees for follow-up checks and ultimately an assessment of $1,000 or more against landowners who fail to comply within 45 days.

Recently notices were sent to the owners of about 3,500 properties zoned for 5 acres or less and designated for inspection in 14 rural fire districts. Fire district chiefs selected the properties, and their firefighters will conduct the inspections.

Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams, who is managing the program, said the goal is to “reduce fuel loads” around rural homes before the height of the fire season. The inspections should be wrapped up in six or seven weeks, he said.

“When you have defensible space, it gives firefighters the opportunity to suppress a fire when it is small,” he said.

Williams acknowledged that 3,500 properties amounts to a fraction - 6.4% - of the 54,680 improved and unimproved parcels up to 5 acres in the unincorporated areas outside the county’s nine cities.

“That’s what $500,000 buys you,” he said, referring to the amount approved by the supervisors for the property inspections and accompanying public outreach about them.

A county staff report said inspecting all rural parcels, including plots of more than 5 acres, at least once every five years would require 11,000 to 14,000 inspections each year. Inspections also will be made based on complaints from residents.

Since the notices were mailed about the pending property checks, Williams said callers have expressed “some very positive comments” and some people “are worried about their property rights.”

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said defensible space makes it easier and safer for wildland firefighters to do their job. Cleared areas around homes give firefighters a safe zone to work in, allowing them “to focus more of our efforts on stopping fires,” he said.

If a home lacks sufficient protection, firefighters may opt not to defend it.

“We can’t risk a firefighter’s life to save a house,” Turbeville said.

Cal Fire has conducted similar inspections for about 20 years in Sonoma County, and had completed more than 530 inspections by late last week.

The state agency hires inspectors for the work and also deploys engine crews, said Will Powers, a Cal Fire spokesman.

Collaboration with fire district chiefs avoids inspections of the same properties by both the county and Cal Fire, he said.

If a property fails the first inspection, a second one is typically done 30 days later. In nearly all cases, property owners “are really receptive when we come out” and the necessary work gets done, Powers said.

The state does not have legal authority to assess fees or clean up a property and charge the landowner for the work, a process called abatement.

Under the county program, the first inspection is done at no cost, Williams said. The second inspection is free if the necessary work has been done, but there is a $165 fee for it and any subsequent inspections if the property still fails to meet defensible space standards.

If the county steps in to do the tree and vegetation-clearing work, the owner will be billed for the cost amounting to at least $1,000. If it is not paid or the absentee landowner can’t be reached, a lien will be placed against the property. For details and more information on the inspection program, go to tinyurl.com/y5cgzekk or call Sonoma County Fire Prevention at 707-565-8875.

“We are looking for voluntary compliance,” rather than collecting fees, fire marshal Williams said.

“Maintaining defensible space is the responsibility of the property owner,” he said. “It’s about safety and educating the public, which ultimately serves to protect the property.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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