Large numbers of rural properties in Sonoma County violate fire safety rules

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Large numbers of rural properties in Sonoma County are in violation of a county ordinance designed to reduce the risk of wildfires, officials said Tuesday, angering county supervisors who say it’s time for residents to take personal responsibility for protecting their homes.

Just half of the properties inspected in a month-old program are in compliance with county rules requiring owners to create firebreaks around their homes, Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams told supervisors Tuesday.

The results dismayed supervisors, with Sonoma County nearing the second anniversary of the 2017 wildfires that killed 24 people and destroyed 5,300 homes.

“I’m not gonna use words like ‘concerned,’” supervisor James Gore said. “I’m actually pissed that more people aren’t doing more. … If you get burnt, and you are not clearing your land, you can’t call yourself a victim on the other side of it.”

The idea of the county’s Rule 13A is to create defensible space around property, which lowers the fire risk for those properties and allows firefighters to be deployed more efficiently.

In the month since countywide inspections began, staff with the Sonoma County Fire Department, Cal Fire and 13 local fire districts have visited 1,805 properties looking for fire fuel — dead vegetation, plants or trees overhanging homes or dead pine needles offering ready kindling on roofs.

Of those, about 70% were deemed compliant with state or county standards.

However, the county rules are more rigorous than the state standards. Only 48% of the 848 properties examined for compliance by county and local fire districts were in compliance with the county ordinance, according to figures from the county Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Property owners in violation of the county ordinance are given 45 days to take care of the problem or they face escalating costs, including charges of at least $1,000 for the county to do the work for them. If that’s not paid, the county will place a lien on the property.

Williams said he wasn’t surprised at the low percentages, saying they’ll improve through the years. But supervisors wondered, with another fire season approaching, whether Sonoma County has years to get prepared.

“It does give us heartburn,” supervisor Susan Gorin said. “I don’t think we can wait year after year after year. We’re in fire season again. We’ve got to be urgent about this. When somebody doesn’t do work on their property, here’s the problem: All of those other properties are affected. It’s not just about them. It’s about all of us.”

In the past month, inspections have occurred in two ways: visits triggered by complaints from neighbors, or, proactive reviews by county staff and county fire districts. There have been 91 complaint-based inspections so far, and just 25% of those properties have been compliant.

Of 757 proactive inspections by county staff and local fire districts, 51% of properties were compliant. Only 10% of the properties inspected by Sonoma County staff in this category were compliant.

In June, Sonoma County began inspecting about 3,500 properties in high-risk areas. The eventual goal for proactive inspections is to reach more than 20% of parcels in unincorporated areas, according to data from the county.

Gore was unapologetic in passing judgment, which was based partially on complaints he said he has received about the county not doing enough despite an ongoing prescribed burn program, among other initiatives.

“This means people are not preparing their land for fire, despite what we’ve been saying,” Gore said. “No matter what our vegetation management program is supposed to be … this shows the state of play.”

Healdsburg resident Dave Henderson also sounded the alarm in prepared remarks presented to county supervisors, saying the ordinance hasn’t gone far enough to reduce fire fuel in the county.

“All of this is far too little, far too late, and with no real pressing timetable. Folks, we are going to burn. We deserve better from our representatives, desperately and urgently,” he wrote.

Caerleon Safford, a part-time fire inspector who also works with the nonprofit Fire Safe Sonoma, showed a video at the supervisors’ meeting to illustrate the importance of maintaining so-called defensible space around a home.

In the video, a rogue ember lodges into the bristles of a work broom leaning against a home. The bristles quickly caught fire before a firefighter removed the broom.

The broom isn’t necessarily common, but Safford said in wildfires, 80% of homes are taken out by embers, and they can be the size of a grain of rice.

But Safford also offered a solution.

“As humans, instinctually, we’re terrified of the big things — the big fire,” she said. “But 80% (of fires) is something small. It’s that broom. It’s that little bit of firewood. It’s that one juniper bush that’s too close. It’s not easy, and it will take a long time. But it’s important.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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