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Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain awarded $505,000 grant to reduce wildfire-prone vegetation

A historic, densely overgrown and fire-prone Sonoma County mountain is the first recipient of funds from a $12 million wildfire prevention grant awarded earlier this month to the California Coastal Conservancy.

On Thursday, the agency’s governing board unanimously approved a $505,000 allotment for Fitch Mountain.

Lisa Ames, conservancy project manager for the North Coast region, said board members were “very positive” about their decision to designate funds for this area.

Considered the first Forest Health and Wildfire Resiliency Grant, the money will pay for brush management on the mountain, officials said.

The California Coastal Conservancy is responsible for protecting and improving natural lands and waterways along California’s coast.

Vegetation removal on Fitch Mountain could begin as early as next week, as the threat of wildfires looms over the region amid a statewide drought.

Marc Mager uses a weed wrench to pull out Scotch broom from his property on Fitch Mountain in this 2010 file photo. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2010)
Marc Mager uses a weed wrench to pull out Scotch broom from his property on Fitch Mountain in this 2010 file photo. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2010)

The process will likely occur over two phases and is expected to continue into 2024.

“This type of work is very labor intensive and it’s very expensive. It’s significant that we’re going to be able to do this work this year,” said Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz, whose agency will oversee the project.

About 350 homes sit on the 900-foot-tall Fitch Mountain, which is mostly on unincorporated territory near Healdsburg. The structures are surrounded by trees and other vegetation susceptible to burning.

The east side of the mountain is surrounded by the Russian River and residents escaping a fire would be limited to narrow roads on the north and south side of the mountain.

County and fire officials will hold an evacuation drill on Fitch Mountain on June 5.

Wildfire smoke lingers above Healdsburg as seen from Fitch Mountain on Thursday, Aug, 20, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Wildfire smoke lingers above Healdsburg as seen from Fitch Mountain on Thursday, Aug, 20, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

“Depending on the fire intensity, you may only have one way in, one way out of the mountain,” Boaz said.

Wildfire concerns are particularly high this year because of the dry winter – the second in as many years – which resulted in the region’s recent “exceptional drought” classification, the most severe category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville said there’s no record of major fires on Fitch Mountain and the immediate area has mostly been affected by smaller blazes. Most recently, on May 18, a 10-foot-by-10-foot blaze was extinguished off Canary Court.

However, “In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time before Fitch Mountain burns,” Turbeville said.

Frank White, 50, has lived along the southern edge of Fitch Mountain for about five years and he concurred a major fire was inevitable, he said as he walked along Fitch Mountain Road Monday afternoon.

He pointed to the heavy vegetation and stressed “all that’s got to go. It’s going to kill us.”

The view to the north from Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The view to the north from Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Boaz said crews will be meticulous about clearing the area and they’re just as focused on preserving the natural landscape.

Steps would include creating a defensible area between private property and open space, and even using sheep and goats to graze.

Turbeville said maintenance will need to continue in the long run to prevent Fitch Mountain from burning.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore added that residents have long expressed concern about part-time residents who allow their yards to grow freely while they’re out of town.

“The community has been, not just advocating, but fighting for resiliency for many years,” the supervisor said. “This is an area we all know - we’ve all known - is a high-risk area.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the Coastal Conservancy has about $12 million in wildfire prevention grant funding and additional contributions could be issued across California in the coming weeks.

“This is moving incredibly fast,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi.

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