State on slightly safer foot­ing with wildfire sea­son at hand

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Kur­tis Alexan­der

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

Pho­tos by San­ti­ago Mejia / The Chronicle

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.

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