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Mark West residents push for strong action on fire prevention

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For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

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.”

Special Coverage

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

Gore noted the county has earmarked at least $25 million from the 2017 wildfire settlement payout by PG&E for fire safety programs, including fuel reduction. But just throwing money at an ambitious one-and-done project in the Mark West region won’t be sufficient, said Gore. What’s needed is a commitment — from fire districts to county agencies to landowners — for ongoing fuel reduction and management, he said.

“You can’t just cut some trees down along a roadway and walk away,” Gore said. “Fuel ladders have to be reduced periodically, fuel breaks along property lines, roadways and driveways have to be established and maintained, flammable invasives like Scotch broom have to be removed. Where possible — specifically on large properties — we can use prescribed fire. In other places, we can reduce fuels through grazing livestock. But homeowners also have to be willing to get out there and use chainsaws and shared chippers, or hire people to do it for them. We all need to share the expense and we all need to participate, and it all has to be long-term.”

When the Tubbs fire devastated the county, Gore said, the overnight rallying cry was Sonoma Strong. As subsequent advances were made in warning systems and response staffs and budgets were bolstered, that slogan joined by Sonoma Ready.

“Now we’re moving to Sonoma Safe,” Gore said. “And for places like the Larkfield Mark West corridor, that’s going to take some real commitment.”

Fuel reduction of such scope is, in fact, mandated under a county code ordinance, 13A, that applies to both developed and undeveloped parcels. And the commitment to meet those specifications exists in the upper Mark West watershed — but it’s unevenly distributed, said Ann DuBay, a Mark West area resident who lost her home during the Tubbs blaze.

“Most of us are very concerned about removing dead trees and keeping brush under control,” said DuBay. “But there’s a smaller group — many of them absentee landowners, or people who haven’t decided to rebuild, or who want to sell — who aren’t as committed. Their properties tend to be very overgrown, and that presents an ongoing hazard to the community at large.”

And even landowners who are on board need help, DuBay said.

“Financial help is part of it, because fuel reduction can be expensive,” said DuBay, who works with Sherwood as a spokeswoman for Sonoma Water. “We also need information and education. I’ve consulted the Sonoma County Resource Conservation District and they’ve been extremely helpful, but it’d be great to get a list, telling me, for example, to do this every year, this every three years, this every five years, and so on. I’m good with lists. Otherwise, it can be very challenging.”

Janet Leisen, another Mark West landowner who lost her home in the Tubbs fire, agreed that absentee landowners disinclined to shoulder the expense and bother of ongoing fuel reduction are a particular problem in the watershed.

“I know of a couple of people who were especially resistant,” Leisen said. “The 13A ordinance is a good tool, but it needs to be rigorously enforced. If someone is contacted and doesn’t address the problem, they need to be cited and fined. Their property has to be mitigated by the county, and they have to be charged for the work. The risk is just too great to ignore properties with heavy fuel accumulations.”

Lynn Garric, a property owner in the Alpine Road area who lost her home in the Tubbs fire and helped draft a community wildfire protection plan, said vegetation management in the corridor must be science-based.

“It’s a complicated analysis to come up with a scientific plan on which kinds of treatments — thinning, limbing, tree removal, prescribed burning, shaded fuel-breaks, firebreaks, grazing, etc. — to apply to which areas,” Garric wrote in a written response to questions. “We want to see (the PG&E settlement and other funding) used in an effective way, and hopefully in some ways that can be sustainable.”

Although some local residents say action is overdue, most residents prefer a well-considered and concrete plan that specifies priorities and budgets, Garric said.

“I think the Board (of Supervisors) is hearing the community feedback demanding an effective long-term strategy for dealing with fire,” she wrote.

John Kessel, a Sonoma County administrative analyst who serves as the county’s fire resilience and recovery coordinator, emphasized that fuel management in the corridor will necessarily employ a variety of techniques, from bulldozed firebreaks to meticulous hand removal of vegetation around homes. But echoing both property owners and fellow officials, he noted that flexibility and nuance is key.

“Just taking firebreaks as an example, we have to be careful not to scrape down too deep and destroy the seedbed,” Kessel said. “You want low-lying and fire-resistant annual plants to grow back. That way the break can double as an attractive recreational trail, and the soil is anchored so it doesn’t erode into Mark West Creek, degrading water quality. You don’t want to address one problem and create another.”

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