State on slightly safer footing with wildfire season at hand
When Anne Faught got a knock on her front gate recently, she was surprised to find two uniformed men at her rural Marin County property, one with a clipboard.
The firefighters had come to her home for an impromptu safety inspection. They were making sure she had cleared hazards like flammable brush and overgrown trees, both common in the small town of Woodacre, where houses like Faught’s nestle against a landscape of picturesque but perilous fire-prone hills.
“I just did $3,000 worth of tree work,” Faught said, pointing to two compost bins stuffed with leaves and branches. “We all saw what happened last year.”
In the wake of the most destructive fire season in California history, peaking with the fast-burning Wine Country blazes that killed 41 people and wiped out nearly 9,000 homes and other buildings, pressure to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire has been immense. And in many ways, the response has been proportionate.
The state stands on at least slightly safer footing this year as a new and perhaps equally challenging fire season approaches.
More firefighting power is in place as California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crews are repositioned to hazard areas and equipped with new suppression gear, including a fleet of civilian Black Hawk helicopters.
Large-scale tree removal and prescribed burns are in the works with new funding from state and federal coffers.
PG&E is expected to face new sanctions, including the possibility of having to de-energize power lines on windy days, after the utility’s electrical equipment was blamed for sparking several of last year’s blazes.
And fire warning systems are better. State emergency officials are making sure more people will be alerted by phone of an approaching wildfire, having learned from Sonoma County’s failure to send out Amber Alert-style messages as October’s Wine Country fires bore down. Weeks after the disaster, when fires broke out in Southern California, notification to residents there already was improved.
But as significant, and plentiful, as the new fire-protection measures are, they merely nip at the edge of an underlying issue: that fire is a constant in California, and as long as people choose to live in and around the state’s wildlands, experts say, the threat remains.
“I would not be surprised if we have another big fire,” said Bill Stewart, forestry specialist at UC Berkeley. “I just don’t think we’re where we need to be.”
Short of keeping people from living in highrisk areas, which is hardly possible as Californians seek the space and serenity of life outside cities, experts say the most effective strategy for minimizing danger is hardening vulnerable communities to wildfire — much like what Marin County is trying to do, with firefighters going door to door to make sure every property is prepared to withstand the inevitable.
It’s not an easy task, especially in the Bay Area. Unlike national forests in the High Sierra, where government agencies can reduce the severity of potential fire by logging or burning large tracts of unpopulated land, coastal areas consist mostly of smaller, inhabited parcels. That puts the onus for maintaining safe surroundings on untold numbers of private landowners.
Not only are property owners often lax in securing their lots, experts say, but there’s too little regulation and enforcement of sound land use, namely where houses should be built, what they can be made of and how much vegetation must be cleared around them.
The Wine Country firestorm underscored these problems. The deadliest of the blazes, the Tubbs Fire that devastated Santa Rosa, blasted through wellknown hazard spots, some of which had burned before. Still, homes were developed there, often lacking modern fire-resistant materials and without adequate fuel breaks.
“We really haven’t put together the pieces of a resilient fire strategy in local areas,” Stewart said.
A handful of policies have been drafted, although not yet put into law, in the aftermath of last year’s devastation to improve how lands susceptible to fire are managed. But none will completely eliminate the danger.
At least two bills in the Legislature seek to discourage homes from being built in fire-prone forests and grasslands. Both propose giving the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection more say on the general plans of cities and towns. These plans, which are done periodically, guide where new houses and subdivisions take shape.
The legislation, though, doesn’t necessarily require the communities to do what the state fire experts recommend, whether it’s refraining from developing in a wooded area or requiring more protective open space around homes.
One of the bills, by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale (Los Angeles County), calls for updating statewide standards for firesafe building materials required of houses in high-risk areas, items like ignition-resistant roofs and tempered-glass windows. Already, the state is planning to add staff to work with cities and counties to enforce these building codes.
But like the provisions on where homes can be built, requirements on what homes should be made of apply only to new housing, meaning most structures wouldn’t be covered by the regulation.
According to the state
Marin County Fire Department trainees coordinate to extinguish a blaze during a wildfire exercise in San Rafael.
Marin County Fire Department trainee Alex Mercer battles a blaze during an exercise in San Rafael. Crews are taking steps as fire season nears.
Marin County Fire Department trainee Tim McDevitt (left) gets guidance from instructor Tyler Fiske during an exercise in San Rafael.