Mark West residents push for strong action on fire prevention
Some have called it a blowtorch, but Brad Sherwood likens it to the muzzle of a shotgun. Regardless of the metaphor, the Mark West Creek corridor is clearly a dangerous place for residents facing down fire risks in a more combustible era.
The Tubbs fire in 2017 raced down the canyon and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes in the area north of Santa Rosa before it jumped Highway 101. In Larkfield Estates, which was nearly leveled by flames, Sherwood’s longtime home was reduced to ruins.
Two years later, the 2019 Kincade fire threatened the corridor, as did the destructive Glass fire in September of this year.
Topography, fuels and wind direction during the most dangerous fall days are prime reasons for the vulnerability.
In its upper reaches, the Mark West Creek canyon is steep and narrow. As climate change drives hotter, drier, longer fire seasons, the canyon’s east-west orientation funnels and accelerates the fierce Diablo winds that typically occur in the fall. In the upper watershed, hundreds of residents own heavily wooded parcels on serpentine roads, assuring both a dangerously ample fuel reservoir and difficult evacuations. At the canyon’s terminus in Larkfield, dense developments lie exposed to disaster. Winds blow, wildfires ignite, and the shotgun blasts.
But if Larkfield and the greater Mark West corridor is an emblematic target for firestorms, it also has become a regional template for meaningful response to the threat. Most of those who lost homes in Sherwood’s subdivision have returned or plan to do so. Across the greater Mark West area, 519 homes have been rebuilt as of the middle of this month, while 444 were in construction and 113 were awaiting groundbreaking or in the permit pipeline.
Some of those residents have joined Sherwood in a push to step up preventative work that could make life in the region more sustainable in a changing and wildfire-prone world.
A nonprofit group that Sherwood co-founded, the Larkfield Resilience Fund, is devoted to helping residents rebuild in a fire-safe manner.
“After the Tubbs fire, I visited a neighborhood in San Diego County that had rebuilt following a huge fire to see what they had done,” said Sherwood, a spokesman for Sonoma Water, the county’s water agency. “I was particularly impressed with the way they had managed their wildland urban interface — the zones where development merges with forested and brushy areas.”
The San Diego neighborhood’s homeowners association owned and dictated management of its wild edge, Sherwood said. Areas surrounding homes were planted with low grasses, with heavy brush and thick stands of trees removed. Those areas doubled as attractive parkland and effective fire buffer.
No such homeowners association exists in Larkfield Estates, and the pattern of private land ownership throughout the wider corridor makes that model “impossible,” Sherwood noted.
“One size doesn’t fit all here, but I saw that we do need to share some basic goals. New codes that require hardening homes against fire had to be part of it. And it was also clear to me that fuel management was critical to our mission.”
For Larkfield, that included helping residents choose landscaping that is both fire resistant and attractive — oaks, other native deciduous species and fruit trees instead of more flammable Monterey pine or junipers. It also meant keeping any vegetation well away from homes, in effect creating a network of mini-firebreaks throughout rebuilt blocks.
But Larkfield is not an island. When Sherwood drinks his morning coffee, his gaze drifts east, to the wooded slopes of Mark West Creek Canyon — to the place where the fires came from, and will inevitably emerge again.
“I keep thinking that it would be great if we could establish permanent bulldozer lines along the ridgetops, so there could be a series of major firebreaks that at least slow down fires enough to give firefighters a chance,” Sherwood said.
Conditions on the ground in the upper canyon differ markedly from the lowlands. Parcels range from 1 acre to 100 acres or more. Despite the fires in recent years, an immense amount of fuel remains. Indeed, many of the burned-over areas are now covered in resurgent brush and saplings, creating an ongoing hazard.
A coherent fuels management policy is difficult to implement, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore noted, given the number of landowners and their varying degrees of commitment — but, he emphasized, failure to do otherwise is not an option.
“The corridor is a recognized fire channel, it has been in our county hazard mitigation plan for a long time, and it’s essential that we address it aggressively,” said Gore, who represents the area. “It’s going to require a public response, a private response and accountability from both. We need incentives — but we also need enforcement.”