Cutting the risk

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The views are superb from many of the million-dollar homes in the hills along Fountain Grove Parkway, but the risks are as steep as the terrain.

In the Fountaingrove II subdivision, about 600 upscale homes are perched in the same path as one of Sonoma County's worst wildland blazes, the Hanly fire, which roared from Calistoga to the former Community Hospital on a windy day in September 1964.

For the Fountaingrove homeowners, $85,000 of prevention buys a significant piece of mind.

"It's beautiful," said Sy Rothbard, gazing at the wooded canyon between the subdivision's east and west segments. "But in the summer, when the wind is blowing, I hope I don't hear sirens."

"One cigarette -- bingo," he said, imagining the conflagration that could race up the slopes and attack a half-billion dollars worth of homes. Such a scene came into full view two weeks ago when fires in Southern California claimed more than 2,000 homes.

Every year, in compliance with state law and a 51-page fire safety plan for their subdivision, the Fountaingrove homeowners pay $85,000 for a fresh trimming of a 100-foot fire break that virtually rings their territory.

Their effort gets an A from the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

"They've taken the necessary steps," said Scott Moon, senior fire inspector.

Two years ago, the state boosted the mandatory fire break in high-risk zones, such as Fountaingrove, from 30 feet to 100 feet, Moon said, after fires in Southern California showed that 30 feet was not enough.

Fountaingrove II expanded its buffer to 100 feet.

"They've been very proactive about reducing their risk," state Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Eric Hoffmann said.

"One hundred feet, that's it. I cut," said Rothbard, a retiree and former president of the Fountaingrove homeowners group.

He's no longer responsible for maintaining the fire break between Fountaingrove II's homes and the subdivision's extensive open space, but Rothbard, a feisty Chicago native, doesn't let go readily.

At the end of Daybreak Court, a short cul-de-sac, Rothbard points to an expanse of brush and trees too dense to walk through.

"This is one of the worst areas," he said.

The undeveloped and overgrown land is private property and can't be touched by the homeowners.

Restaurateur Gary Chu, whose home backs up to the wooded land, said he doesn't know what to do.

"I cannot go in there and cut their trees," he said.

The homeowners can establish burn breaks on their own land, clearing dry grass and brush and trimming trees, Moon said.

Most residents have done that, Rothbard said, but the added 100-foot break carved into the subdivision's open space affords added protection.

And it's an annual chore to maintain, requiring a trimming every May, ideally just as the rains stop.

A crew of eight to 10 workers, wielding weed whackers, takes about two months to complete the job, said Zeke Ortiz of Marizco Landscape Management, the contractor hired by the Fountaingrove homeowners.

His workers wear protective clothing, but still get poison oak inflammations that can sideline a man for two days, Ortiz said.

Cal Fire's Hoffmann said the idea is not to denude the landscape, but merely to reduce flammable material within a fire break. Flames may burn across it, but they should slow down and stay low, "allowing us to get in there and put it out," he said.

Fountaingrove II is in one of Santa Rosa's four designated very high fire severity zones, mostly wooded, hilly areas that cover 25 percent of the city, Moon said.

Fountain Grove Parkway wasn't there when the Hanly fire burned down to Chanate Road more than 40 years ago. The stakes are higher now, and the San Diego fires last week proved charred wildlands can burn again in as little as four years.

"When it's dry and windy -- whew," Rothbard said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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