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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.

Crews from Cal Fire’s Sea Ranch station, one of nine in Sonoma County, have been working since fall on thinning the redwood, fir and tan oak forest on a 5-acre site around the Oak Ridge repeater, a 150-foot antenna that facilitates emergency radio traffic.

Nicholls called it a high-priority project, with crews now making “the biggest dent we can” prior to the start of fire season. The 5-acre prescribed burn near the top of Magic Mountain in the Jenner Headlands is planned before the end of the month.

Cal Fire will collaborate with state parks crews on burning piles of felled dead and diseased trees at Salt Point State Park on the coast and Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville, where they will also thin fir trees along the road up to the Bullfrog Pond Campground.

A prescribed burn on the downstream face of Warm Springs Dam near Healdsburg will facilitate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ inspection of the earthen dam.

Cal Fire currently has five engines and 55 firefighters stationed in Sonoma County and will ramp up to 10 engines, two bulldozers and 91 firefighters on May 25, Nicholls said.

In June, the agency will swell to peak staffing, with 15 engines, two bulldozers and 136 firefighters in the county.

The Santa Rosa Fire Department’s weed abatement program, which oversees annual inspections of about 12,000 properties, will start at the official beginning of fire season, expected to be no later than June 1.

Top priority will be rebuilt homes and vacant lots in the footprints of the 2017 and 2019 wildfires, including Fountaingrove and Coffey Park, Lowenthal said.

Coffey Park has been largely rebuilt and Fountaingrove less so, but vacant and overgrown lots present a fire hazard, he said, noting that windblown embers can ignite completed homes as well as those under construction and related debris.

The city’s weed abatement ordinance requires property owners to cut weeds and grasses over 4 inches tall on vacant lots, properties with a half-acre of undeveloped land and all 9,482 ?parcels in the wildland urban interface, generally defined as areas with homes built among fire-prone vegetation.

Secondary priority will go to properties in the interface, including parts of Bennett Valley, Rincon Valley and Oakmont.

Property owners will receive at least two notices that they need to cut vegetation and up to three inspections before the city hires a contractor to do the work at the owner’s expense, Lowenthal said.

Last year about 1,340 properties were found to be in violation of the ordinance on the first inspection, he said.

Property owners must maintain the 4-inch grass height throughout the fire season, as inspections will be ongoing. For information on the program, go to srcity.org/weed abatement.

On May 25, Cal Fire will begin inspecting rural properties in the hills outside cities for compliance with state standards for defensible space around homes and all other buildings.

The standards require grass cut to 4 inches and no dead vegetation within 30 feet of structures and a “reduced fuel zone” from 30 feet out to 100 feet or the property line, Nicholls said.

There are more than 28,000 ?residences in the nearly 800,000 acres of land under Cal Fire’s jurisdiction, which covers about 70% of the county. Inspectors aim to check one-third of them every year, he said, noting that last year the effort fell far short with inspections of nearly 3,000 ?properties.

The goal this year is for each engine crew to conduct 10 ?inspections a week, with most of the work completed by the end of July, Nicholls said.

Cal Fire gets better than 90% compliance in the Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, and landowners who fail to comply can be fined $100 to $500, he said.

Sonoma County Fire District, which covers 200 square miles with 75,000 residents ringing Santa Rosa, is investigating citizen complaints about overgrown properties, with three fire inspectors assigned to the work and backed up by engine crews.

“They are out there 10 hours a day, every day,” Heine said.

The department has received about 40 complaints so far and conducted a similar number of inspections, he said.

Last fire season the department received more than 450 ?complaints, and Heine said he expects the number this year will rise quickly with the onset of fire season.

“All of our focus is on education,” he said, as opposed to enforcement. “Almost everybody’s looking for information. They just want to comply.”

Based on advisories from Cal Fire, Heine said he expects a “very busy and active fire season.”

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

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