Santa Rosa adopts wildfire protection plan to guide work against future fire risk
With lightning-sparked fires burning in Sonoma County and across the North Bay, Santa Rosa on Tuesday advanced a four-year effort to prepare for wildfires, with officials touting a completed plan as a key tool to draw funding to underwrite work to curb future wildland fire risks.
The City Council voted unanimously to adopt a community wildfire protection plan, a document crafted by other jurisdictions to brace for an increasingly volatile California fire season. The city started the planning effort in 2016, fought for grant funding before and after the 2017 fires, secured the project funding in 2019 and finished the plan in May, said Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, who has been working with Cal Fire on the Walbridge firefight in northwestern Sonoma County.
That fire, still mostly uncontained and hundreds of other lightning-sparked blazes, have burned hundreds of thousands of acres across California in just the past week, punctuating the latest in a series of intensifying wildfire seasons across the state.
The disasters, and the need for local governments to plan for them, has only stiffened the funding competition for cities like Santa Rosa.
“Given the last several years of wildfires in California, everybody under the sun seems to be applying for grants,” Lowenthal said. “... It’s definitely not a guarantee.”
The plan’s development involved simulating 3,000 wildfires of various sizes during a typical season and reviewing nearly three decades of weather records to identify the highest-risk areas surrounding the city, Lowenthal said. While almost all of the hilly areas surrounding east Santa Rosa showed up orange on a map of burn probabilities, indicating high risk category — a distinction long recognized for those parts of the city — other areas raised new alarms.
For instance, the hills above the Skyhawk area on the southeastern edge of Rincon Valley, between the burn paths of the Tubbs and Nuns fires, were painted bright red, showing the “very high” risk of a wildfire there.
“There’s a lot of fuels in that area that have not burned to date,” Lowenthal said.
The 153-page document identifies dozens of potential measures Santa Rosa could pursue, such as developing a geographic information system (GIS)-based program to track brush-clearing efforts, boosting work with property owners along evacuation routes to reduce fuels and developing an evacuation program tailored for vulnerable community members, including seniors.
What projects come first, and where, will depend largely on available funding, but having the plan in place could bolster the city’s chances when it comes to future grant applications, officials said.
“We lacked this document when we were trying to get funding in the past,” said City Manager Sean McGlynn. “This is a critical part of getting funded by the federal government, is that you have the plan so they know exactly what they’re funding and how the community’s going to approach these issues.”
Utah-based Geo Elements LLC, the consulting firm hired for $200,000 in 2019 to complete the plan, dissolved after its contract was up in June, the project its last in a 10-year run, Carol Henson, the former owner, said in a phone call Tuesday night.
Henson, a former wildland firefighter, is writing a book about women in the ranks of wildland crews. She said she texted her former consulting teammates after the council adopted the plan Tuesday.
“We were very proud of this project,” she said. “We feel like it’s the best plan we’ve done in our 10 years of work.”
No members of the public participated in the wildfire plan discussion during Tuesday’s meeting.
You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @wsreports.