Close to Home: Working together, we can save lives and property

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I admit it: Every time it gets hot and windy my stomach does flips.

Before the fire, I would take my dog, Luna, on a trail behind our house in Oakmont. I knew that the area was minimally maintained, leaving Scotch broom and lots of dead trees.

After the fire, I remembered when I was on the Mill Valley City Council and flew over the Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais in a CHP helicopter. The CHP officer pointed down to Mount Tam and asked if I knew what the huge bushes with yellow flowers were. I did not. He told me that they were Scotch broom, and they were a self-immolating species. Fast forward to the present. I realized I had to find out how to get rid of these invasive and combustible species threatening our neighborhood and our community.

I learned that Santa Rosa doesn’t have a brush and vegetation management ordinance. What it does have is a weak weed abatement ordinance that is reactive rather than proactive. So I set about learning how other jurisdictions made dramatic changes to address their vulnerability after devastating fires, interviewing more than a dozen state and local officials.

San Diego County, which had a major fire in 2003, now has a model brush and vegetation management program. Oakland also made major changes after the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. A supervising fire inspector there asked if I knew what the three elements of fire are: fuel load, topography and weather. He pointed to the fact that fuel load was the only element within our control.

Oakland and its East Bay neighbors have become proactive, sharing information about possible hot spots, aggressively enforcing rules that require property owners to lower fuel loads and paying close attention to the urban-wildland interface because fire does not recognize jurisdictional borders.

In Oakland, every property in the officially designated “high” and “very high” risk zones is inspected annually, and property owners are advised on how to reduce fire dangers. Officials say they achieved 90 percent compliance.

One more nugget gleaned from the East Bay: 3,500 goats graze 1,000 acres of high-risk hillside. And, guess what, goats love Scotch broom and poison oak and don’t require lunch breaks.

In my discussions, I learned that there’s an enormous disparity between spending on fire prevention and fire suppression, with four times more money going to suppression. In Santa Rosa, the disparity is even larger, with 95 percent to fire suppression. If we adjusted those proportions and prevented some fires, imagine how much money — and suffering — might be saved.

I met with Sonoma County’s assistant fire chief, James Williams, to learn about the county’s brush and vegetation management protocols. He also cited a disparity between suppression and prevention funding.

A 2016 Sonoma County ordinance was a good first step, setting aside $500,000 for prevention and vegetation management. I asked for the chief’s wish list: Educating property owners about defensible space, ensuring homes are structurally hardened (fire-safe roofs, protected vents and the like) and adopting a regional brush management plan.

My next visit was with Cal Fire’s division chief, Ben Nicholls, who told me the state’s firefighting agency has completed more than 9,000 inspections of the 17,000 habitable properties within its responsibility area so far this year. Cal Fire tries to conduct inspections when homeowners are present. Otherwise, inspectors leave a copy of the report if they find violations.

In Santa Rosa, the Fire Department doesn’t identify zones based on risk level, as Oakland does. Instead, the city focuses on the wildland-urban interface, those areas where homes are near forests, grasslands and other open space. Inspections aren’t based on specific fuel load risks, making it a reactive rather than a proactive process. This lack of prioritization of risk is a flaw in the city’s weed abatement ordinance. I was told the ordinance wasn’t created to eliminate Scotch broom or other combustible vegetation on large parcels. Seriously? If that’s true, it needs to be changed.

Santa Rosa’s fire chief, Tony Gossner, told me the city inspects only from the front of a property. I believe that procedure renders inspections toothless, as it’s difficult to enforce major violations that aren’t visible from the street.

Gossner said he’d like to see a regional brush and vegetation management plan that takes into account historical data, includes a working group of stakeholders, personnel dedicated to fuel reduction, land-use decisions based on wildfire risks and use of grazing, mechanical equipment, chemicals and controlled burns to reduce fuel loads.

James Gore, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, is exploring the efficacy of prescriptive burns under certain conditions and in defined areas away from populated areas.

I also met with Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, who was instrumental in securing $1 billion over the next five years for fuel load management as part of Senate Bill 901, the fire bill passed at the end of the legislative session. Wood convinced the governor to use funds from the state’s cap-and-trade climate program, arguing that California’s wildfires are emitting more greenhouse gases than any other source.

In my conversation with state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, he said the state has a patchwork of fire prevention ordinances and massive differences in enforcement protocols, from reactive to robust proactive community outreach and accountability standards for homeowners. He also acknowledged that the fire season is now 24/7, 365 days a year, not some arbitrary seasonal window.

My appeal to the local and state officials I spoke to was to think about using the money from SB 901 to incentivize local governments to do the right thing — develop comprehensive brush and vegetation management plans to reduce the fuel load around our homes and wildlands, remembering that fire knows no jurisdictional boundaries. If we know that we are all in this together, maybe we have a shot at saving lives and property.

Ruthie Snyder is a community member of the Press Democrat editorial board. She lives in Oakmont.

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