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Gathered in Santa Rosa, officials proclaim new level of wildfire danger

Protecting your home

Firefighters advise creating at least 100 feet of defensible space around structures.www.readyforwildfire.orgSOURCE: Cal Fire

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

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Fire officials gathered in Santa Rosa’s devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood Wednesday to implore residents of the entire state to prepare for what they fear will be another long, dangerous wildfire season.

Some 950 wildfires have burned more than 5,800 acres of California so far this year, and residents need to recognize that fire, because of a host of factors including climate change, is now a year-round threat, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said.

“Throughout California, we are experiencing more fires, more acres burned, more homes destroyed, and just in general more intense fires,” Pimlott said.

With spring rains prompting robust vegetation growth that is already drying out - it’s expected to be 84 by Friday and windy - Pimlott said residents need to take steps to help firefighters and protect themselves.

Standing in Rincon Ridge Park with scorched homesites and vegetation in every direction, Pimlott used the backdrop left by the historic Tubbs fire to drive home the need for continued vigilance.

“It’s ironic that we’re standing here today talking about ramping up into fire season, but everybody here in the North Bay feels like they’ve never left it,” Pimlott said.

Even as the press conference was underway, Cal Fire and local crews were battling a grass fire at the Sonoma Coast. The blaze reported about 2 p.m. between Highway 1 and Fisk Mill Cove in Salt Point State Park took nearly three hours to contain.

Earlier in the day, legislators gathered at the Capitol calling for an $184 million budget allocation to strengthen and modernize the state’s mutual aid system for large wildfires and to support Cal Fire, including more money for prepositioning firefighters in areas of high fire danger.

Pimlott and other fire officials urged residents to take a variety of measures to prepare for the upcoming season. Those include signing up for warning programs such as SoCoAlerts and Nixle, paying attention to forecasts of high fire danger, preparing a go-bag to take in the event of an evacuation and working to remove fuels from properties.

“You have to make the tough decisions before there’s smoke in the air,” Robert Baird, regional fire director of the U.S. Forest Service. Baird said his agency is offering its expertise in land management to help communities with fuel reduction programs.

Creating so-called defensible spaces around homes can be a hugely helpful to firefighters, said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner. While it might not do much to slow down a wind-whipped fire that starts 12 miles away, like the Tubbs fire did, for most fires, keeping fuels away from the homes buys firefighters time, he said.

“We like to see houses that can stand on their own for a short time so we can get there and do some good,” Gossner said. “But if we’re dealing with tall grass and brush and trees that have not been trimmed and gutters not cleaned, that makes it very, very difficult for all of us.”

In the 31 million acres under state responsibility, Cal Fire tries to inspect properties about once every three years to ensure defensible space practices are being employed.

So far this year, the state has performed 115,000 such inspections out of about 800,000 structures in its jurisdiction, said Matt Dias, executive officer of the California Board of Forestry.

Cities, however, are responsible for their own inspections, and Santa Rosa hasn’t done them in about a decade, Gossner said.

“Due to budget cuts, those went away,” he said.

Since the recession-era cuts, the budget of the Santa Rosa Fire Department has rebounded to $38.5 million - 35 percent above its peak before cuts were imposed. The safety inspections, carried out by firefighters assigned to engines, have not been reinstated.

Gossner said he raised the issue during last year’s budget process. While valuable, such programs can also be challenging because of access issues to private properties, he said.

Supervisor James Gore said he hoped other counties could learn from Sonoma County’s experience, much like Sonoma should have learned from past fire disasters in San Diego and Oakland.

“We challenge you to learn from our lesson,” Gore said. “Don’t wait for this to come and smack you in the face.”

Some of the lessons the community has already learned involved its wireless alert system, which Gossner said has been overhauled to allow county and city officials to trigger Amber-Alert type messages to cellphones.

County officials a year before the fires ruled out the use of such technology, a decision that has drawn wide criticism from residents and which state investigators said was based on an outdated understanding of forced cellphone alerts.

Other lessons, however, are awaiting the completion of state investigations into the causes of the major blazes.

“We’re close,” Pimlott said of the Cal Fire investigations. “More information will be coming out on this in the coming weeks,” he said.

By the end of the month, Pimlott said he expects to publicly release redacted versions of the reports on many but not all of the major fire investigations.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Protecting your home

Firefighters advise creating at least 100 feet of defensible space around structures.www.readyforwildfire.orgSOURCE: Cal Fire

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:

_____

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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