Sonoma County agencies rush to prepare for lengthy wildfire season
With grass already turning brown and summer still six weeks away, Sonoma County fire and parks agencies are racing to trim trees, cut weeds and grass and hold residents accountable for doing their share of the work to prevent calamitous blazes in what looks to be a long and potentially severe wildfire season.
Santa Rosa firefighters will soon begin inspecting 12,000 properties for compliance with landscaping rules meant to curb fire risk. Elsewhere in the county, crews are planning to cut firebreaks and ignite prescribed burns, while sheep and cattle are being set grazing on county parkland to reduce the amount of flammable material.
One chore involves thinning the forest around a 150-foot antenna in northwest Sonoma County near Annapolis that serves as a key link in radio communication among local first responders. A prescribed burn on the Jenner Headlands Preserve would create a fuel break between Cazadero and Duncans Mills in western Sonoma County.
“Now is the time to take action,” said Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal.
“It’s that time of year,” said Ben Nicholls, a Cal Fire division chief in the agency’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit.
Warmer temperatures are already starting to dry out grass-covered hillsides across the county. At Cal Fire’s Glen Ellen station, Nicholls gazed across Highway 12 toward Bouverie Preserve and saw grass that had turned a “nice shade of golden.” Most of the seasonal grasses in Santa Rosa remain “relatively green,” Lowenthal said, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t burn.”
Proof of that, Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said, was a burn pile on Wallace Road north of Santa Rosa that escaped Thursday and scorched 5 ?acres, requiring a helicopter water drop to assist firefighters in snuffing it out.
So far this year, Cal Fire has reported 508 wildfires in Northern California covering 726 acres, more than twice as many as in 2019.
The rush is on to get as much preventive work as possible done this month, motivated in part by a report that cited an above-normal potential for fires of 75 acres or more over two-thirds of the county in June.
The four-month seasonal outlook issued last week by Predictive Services, a branch of the National Weather Service, said much of the region, including the entire North Coast, received 50% to 70% of normal rainfall “as we enter the final and driest months of the rain year.”
“The drying of dead fuels in most areas is happening at a more rapid pace than usual,” the report said, noting that current moisture levels are “comparable to values typically seen in early June.”
Wildfire fuels will reach “critically dry levels about a month earlier than usual and up to two months earlier than in 2019,” it said.
“Long, dry summer,” Nicholls said, summing up the report. “Ultimately, it gives us pause going into fire season.”
But a tinderbox landscape still requires ignition and wind to propel flames and create horrors like the Tubbs and Kincade fires that ravaged Sonoma County in 2017 and 2019, he said.
On Tuesday, that spark came when a tree branch fell into a power line west of Healdsburg, starting a small fire that was contained at an acre, according to fire officials. Cal Fire says 99% of the state’s wildland blazes are caused by people, including utilities and excluding only lightning.
Sonoma County Regional Parks, which operates 56 parks totaling 12,000 acres, is throwing crews with weed whackers and mowers - along with sheep, goats and cattle - into the formidable chore of cutting tall grass in most parks.
“That’s why we’re anxious to get out there,” said Melanie Parker, deputy parks director.
About 530 sheep and 60 goats are grazing at Helen Putnam Regional Park in Petaluma, provided by Sweetgrass Grazing, based in San Antonio Valley south of Petaluma.
Paigelynn Trotter, a company shepherd, noted that the livestock do their work with little climate footprint or staffing needed, consuming grass and depositing manure that fertilizes the soil, she said. The sheep also are grazing at three other parks.
Cattle are grazing at four county parks, including sprawling 1,100-acre Taylor Mountain in Santa Rosa and Tolay Lake in Petaluma, the system’s largest park at 3,400 acres.
Grazing is “a really important part of our tool kit,” Parker said.
A 20-acre prescribed burn is planned at 202-acre Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen, along with a shaded fuel break at North Sonoma Mountain park east of Rohnert Park.
County parks are under a “soft closure,” allowing people to walk or bike into those they can reach from their home without need of driving. All parks are temporarily closed to vehicles and Sonoma Coast parks and beaches are closed to all visitors.