County’s new wildfire risk assessment drives updated protection plan
By Christian Kallen
Sonoma Valley evaded a disastrous wildfire season in 2021, but the devastation in other places — in the Sierras, the northeastern part of the state, southern California — are evidence the region was lucky, not necessarily fire-smart.
Sonoma County, through Permit Sonoma, is unveiling an updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), first developed in 2016 — the year before the devastating fires of October 2017, which brought disaster to Kenwood and Glen Ellen.
Permit Sonoma is holding a series of public meetings to introduce residents to the plan, district by district. The First District was, appropriately or coincidentally, the first to hear about the update and have the opportunity to respond at a Jan. 20 forum. The other four districts had their chance at similar meetings over the following 10 days; records of those meetings and other related material can be found at https:// sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Fire-Prevention/Community-Wildfire-Protection-Plan/).
The serial meetings gave local residents the chance to hear from the county’s fire management specialists, while giving the county officials a chance to hear more specific, local concerns.
The urgency of an updated CWPP is brought home in the report’s introduction: More Sonoma County acres burned in the past four years (289,000 acres) than in the 77 years before 2016 (about 245,000), when the first county protection plan was issued. Their names alone can trigger nightmares: The Glass, Meyers, and Walbridge fires of 2020; the Kincade fire of 2019; the Tubbs and Nun fires of 2017. “All these recent wildfires are a clear indication of how fire-prone and dangerous conditions can be when heavy fuel loads, drought, and fire weather combine,” warns the report.
Neither county agencies nor residents have stood still over the past several years, as the impact of wildfire has been dramatically demonstrated. New community groups and fire-safe councils have encouraged residents to create defensible spaces around their homes and take other steps to reduce fire danger, and emergency notification and evacuation plans have been developed.
The updated plan provides even more granular wildfire hazard and risk assessments than previous plans, including more specific community descriptions, options for addressing issues of “home hardening” to reduce vulnerability to wildfire, and a prioritized list of projects which, if implemented, can serve to reduce wildfire hazards.
In Sonoma County, a big concern is the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where “wildland fuels intermix with homes and structures.” The CWPP report estimates onethird of the county’s 495,000 residents live in WUI zones, meaning the impact of a rural wildfire can easily impact residents. The report puts the burden of prevention on the homeowner: “It is crucial that residents of Sonoma County’s WUI understand the importance of making individual homes and entire communities capable of withstanding the passage of a wildfire without suffering high numbers of home ignitions.” Such activities as modifying atrisk structures and reducing fuel levels, especially within the defensible-space zone of 100 feet from structures, are “primarily the responsibility of individual homeowners.”
To give homeowners pertinent information about the wildfire risks on their properties, the report points to wildfirefuelmapper.org, where specific information about parcels three acres or larger, anywhere in the county, can be downloaded, showing fire history, risk, vegetation, and geography.
A newly developed Wildfire Risk Index for the county as a whole, also available in the CWPP report, shows most of the county as high hazard, very high, or extremely high wildfire risk. Sonoma Valley residents find additional fuel for concern: “The areas most at risk are concentrated in the Mayacamas Mountains, both in the northern and southern parts of the county along the county boundary … In addition, the Sonoma Mountain area ranked high, as did areas north of the Russian River and southwest of Petaluma.”
Fire suppression and response in an area as diverse and dispersed as Sonoma County is a complex topic. The recent combination of several smaller fire districts into larger districts — most of Sonoma Valley is now in one district, the Sonoma Valley Fire District, though Kenwood’s small fire department remains nominally independent — is seen as helping coordinate and assign resources more efficiently.
But the point of the CWPP, and the five district meetings to explain and receive feedback at the local level, underscores the role individual property owners must play in keeping the next firestorm from overwhelming Sonoma County’s regions, neighborhoods, and resources.
“To meet the challenges of protecting homes and lives in the current era of increased risk and funding, the most efficient programs will be those that help residents safely coexist with fire,” concludes the executive summary. “Fuel management programs are critical, as is education in creating defensible space and reducing structural vulnerabilities. The challenges are great, but the work is imperative.”