Lake Sonoma advocates call for ban on campfires, new permitting system for 2019

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As Sonoma County gears up to install high-definition cameras to monitor for potential wildfires, focused around the Lake Sonoma watershed, advocates pushing for stronger protections want a temporary ban on campfires within the reservoir’s popular recreation area.

The Friends of Lake Sonoma board of directors voted last week to ask federal officials who manage the recreation area to ban all campfires there through Nov. 1 and put in place new safety practices for next year. The Army Corps of Engineers already decided not to allow fires this summer at campsites visitors can only access by boat.

Fearing the risk campfires pose amid California’s severe fire conditions, a majority of Friends of Lake Sonoma board members want the corps to look at requiring permits in 2019 to light campfires, Executive Director Jane Hodges Young said. Her group of volunteers supports and helps maintain the park.

“We’re just in a tinderbox here,” she said. “They’re very good at Lake Sonoma, the corps is, about watching and monitoring the campfire situation, but a spark can go. ... I think we’re all super sensitive to fire, considering what happened to us last year.”

The corps decided not to allow campfires at the recreation area’s 14 boat-in campgrounds when they opened this year because officials weren’t able to cut fire breaks and do other work necessary to ensure fire safety, said Chris Schooley, the corps’ acting area operations manager for Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino.

Schooley said the only remaining part of the recreation area where campfires are allowed is the Liberty Glen Campground off Rockpile Road. But they need to be contained to a designated area, such as a fire ring or grill, and must be fully extinguished before campers leave, he said.

Vegetation around the campground has been removed to prevent fires from spreading, and for the first time in years, the site has running water, Schooley said.

Young said directors were mindful of the existing limitations on where and how campfires can be lit, but most remained concerned about the potential risk.

“You can have it in a fire ring, I understand that, but you can still get embers to get off that and float elsewhere, and that’s what concerns us,” she said.

Schooley maintained that the corps’ current policies at the lake prioritized safety while also allowing the public to enjoy campfires. A permitting system, while possible, would require dedicated staffing resources that are already in short supply, he said.

“Our current system, I think, takes in all of those things and does it the best we can for now,” Schooley said. “If future policy and future input suggests the permitting system is the way we should go as an agency, then obviously we would take that into serious consideration.”

Schooley said the corps doesn’t manage the day-to-day operations of the Lake Sonoma Resort Area marina, which is run by a third party.

But the marina is required to comply with corps safety rules, including those around campfires, he said.

The lake-safety discussion comes as Sonoma County supervisors have agreed to move forward with installing the network of cameras to monitor for wildfires around the county, with a focus on the Lake Sonoma watershed.

Supervisors, who also serve as the county’s water agency directors, Tuesday approved spending more than $477,000 to launch the camera project. By Oct. 1, a total of eight cameras will be installed in various locations around the county, most in the northern areas, although one will be located at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve on Sonoma Mountain.

Two test cameras already have been installed in the region: one on Pine Mountain north of Healdsburg and one on Mount Konocti in Lake County. Both have been used to help firefighters battle the Mendocino Complex fires, according to Jay Jasperse, the chief engineer of Sonoma Water, the water agency’s new brand name.

The Pine Mountain camera will be one of the eight used in Sonoma County, Jasperse said, and Cal Fire is looking for ways to make the Mount Konocti camera permanent. Cal Fire also is looking to get a camera installed on Mount Saint Helena.

The fire-camera network is part of the broader AlertWildfire system, first launched out of the University of Nevada, Reno. The system is designed to help first responders and dispatchers spot fires when they ignite, as well as get a sense of where a blaze is burning, how fast it’s spreading and what exactly is threatened.

In Sonoma County, Redcom and Cal Fire dispatchers will make use of the cameras, which will also upload images to the public website

Jason Boaz, the Healdsburg fire chief and vice president of the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association, told supervisors Tuesday he strongly supported the camera system.

“It all comes down to information — the quicker we get information on where the fire is and what size it is,” Boaz said. “By doing that, we’ll be able to get out timely notifications to the public to obviously get them out of the way.”

County officials hope to expand the network into a larger system that includes Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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