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Oakmont becomes Firewise

Oakmont becomes Firewise

Community prepares for fire season by junking the juniper

By Tracy Salcedo

For those who’ve seen firsthand how wildfire exposes the vulnerabilities of both natural and manicured landscapes, the underside of a juniper bush is terrifying. The branches resemble blood vessels, main arteries to capillaries, but of astonishing density. It’s easy to see how an ember could set fire creeping along every limb until it reaches the resin-rich needles and explodes.

In Oakmont, a small army of fireaware residents has taken on the eradication of this fire-country hazard as part of formal Firewise landscape modification and home hardening campaigns aimed at better preparing the over-55 community to withstand wildfire.

Oakmont has been grazed by the two blazes that have swept through northern Sonoma Valley in the last four years, losing two homes in the 2017 Nuns Fire and four in the 2020 Glass Fire. Eradicating the juniper once ubiquitous in the yards of many Oakmont residents demonstrates how the grassroots can mobilize to create positive change.

“The Junk the Juniper program was a wild success,” said Iris Harrell, the community’s Firewise Committee chair, via email. Juniper, she explained, is nicknamed “gasoline plant,” its volatility magnified by the woody structure supporting its greenery and the debris that collects under the plants. The committee organized two separate weeks in April and May where the Oakmont Village Association (OVA) paid for all juniper delivered to the Berger Center to be chipped and hauled away.

“We probably have more junipers in Oakmont than Alaska has snow, but it was a great choice when Oakmont was founded … low maintenance, low water, low cost,” said Harrell. “But now, in the 21st century, we are in a totally different climate and our world has changed dramatically. Different choices need to be made.”

The need to junk the juniper was highlighted during the Glass Fire. “Firefighters were clearing junipers and cleaning eaves to prevent the spread of fire,” Harrell explained. “If homeowners did this preparation regularly, firefighters wouldn’t have to be pulled off the line to clear brush.”

The Junk the Juniper campaign was conceived by the second “rendition” of the Oakmont Firewise Committee, built on an earlier iteration that formed in 2018, following the 2017 North Bay fires. With new leadership and reinvigorated membership, the current committee has been able to get Oakmont certified by Firewise USA, the National Fire Protection Association, as a Firewise community. To qualify, Harrell explained, committee members attended a two-day course and passed a “rigorous test” that qualified them to create a Firewise plan for Oakmont and make recommendations to residents on how to choose, or modify, landscaping to reduce the risk of fire starting and to control its spread. To date, Harrell said, the Firewise committee has trained 16 volunteer assessors with different levels of expertise and backgrounds. The assessors, including Harrell herself, have been trained through Fire Safe Sonoma, so the group follows the same principles adopted by other Firewise organizations. The Firewise designation enables the committee to tap into resources and expertise on local and national levels, and to share ideas and resources with other Firewise communities, including those in Sonoma and Marin Counties. The committee must submit a fuel reduction plan and report annually on progress, which is measured by time and/or money spent. The first assessment of the community’s fire hazard reduction progress is slated for August, just as fire season kicks into high gear.

To meet its objectives, the Firewise Committee has been focusing on the 0–5-foot zone, which is the space around homes that should be kept clear of flammable plants and materials. The group’s new Firewise landscape policies support homeowners trying to create that safe space, Harrell said. Landscaping in this zone should exclude bark or rubber mulch, junipers, plants taller than 18 inches, and plants on Oakmont’s “do not plant” list (revised by the committee as part of its mission). Homeowners should also ensure any plants in the zone are irrigated. If the committee has its way, all homes in Oakmont will have 0–5-foot zones that meet these requirements.

Other goals set to be completed by August include mowing all wildland grasses to four inches in height, removing deadwood from trees and shrubs, and removing dead trees and shrubs themselves.

Looking out to August 2022, the committee aims to ensure all tree limbs are six feet clear of homes and 10 feet clear of chimneys; that tree limbs and other “ladder fuels,” which fire uses to climb into tree canopies and onto roofs, have been cleared; and that all dead and dying trees have been removed.

Home hardening is also a committee focus, with members already working toward a “phase two” effort. “While at each home (on site visits), we have been advocating and educating about home hardening, which is the ‘0’ part to safeguard,” Harrell explained.

What if people don’t comply? The Architectural Committee of the OVA can enforce the “do not plant” rules with warnings and fines, Harrell said, or hire someone to do the work and charge the homeowner.

While the committee can’t require residents to comply with home hardening recommendations, they can require Firewise landscaping, she noted.

The home hardening phase includes ensuring homeowners have installed foundation and soffit or attic vent screens composed of 1/8-inch mesh or less, so windblown embers can’t get through. Ember intrusion is a major hazard, causing homes to burn from the inside out, Harrell explained. Other aspects of home hardening include covering gutters with metal screens to keep leaf litter from building up, and installing 1/4-inch mesh on the inside of gable and eyebrow vents. The committee has compiled exhaustive resources for residents and homeowners, including identifying companies that provide advice on home hardening and landscape architects who can help owners choose Firewise plantings and design outdoor spaces that are safe, beautiful, and support local ecology.

For more information on the Firewise Oakmont effort, or to set up a site visit, contact Harrell at (650) 280-3265 or via email at mor[email protected]

Photo by Melissa Dowling