The Kenwood Press
News: 04/01/2019

Not if, but when

Agencies, neighborhoods plan for the next fire

Alec Peters

“We’re in a new paradigm and we need to do things differently.”

With that message, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin kicked off a community workshop on March 23 about preparing for the next wildfire, the resources available for the public, and how communities, neighborhoods, public agencies, and private organizations are planning for the inevitable “next one.”

The18 months after the devastating Sonoma County 2017 wildfires have seen an increase in resources and funding in areas such as vegetation management, both on a state and local government level, as well as from nonprofits and other private organizations.

A handful of neighborhoods – like the Cavedale/Trinity Road area and Oakmont – have taken charge of their own destiny, creating Fire Safe Councils to educate their community and develop proactive programs to better protect lives and property.

Now, according to many speakers and citizens at the meeting, held at Altimira Middle School, there is more that needs to be done, and a main goal is to keep the momentum going.

In Sonoma Valley, a group of six conservation organizations and land management agencies have recently come together to form the Sonoma Valley Fire and Vegetation Management Collaboration – Audubon Canyon Ranch, California State Parks, Sonoma County Ag & Open Space, Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Sonoma Land Trust, and the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Trust.

What they all have in common is they manage protected lands in Sonoma Valley – 18,000 acres of land, including state and regional parks, and properties protected by private organizations.

Their goal is to decrease the risk of wildfire, mitigate its impacts, and reduce risks to life and property. The group is working on plans to reduce hazardous fuels through forest thinning, targeted ladder fuel removal, fuel breaks, invasive species removal, and controlled burns.

“An overarching goal of our collaborative is to get more fire on our lands and restore fire to its historic role in Sonoma Valley,” said Cyndy Shafer, natural resource program manager for California State Parks. “This is for long term forest resilience and ecological health, and to keep all our communities safer.”

The collaborative is currently working with Cal Fire to potentially do some controlled burns later this spring.

On a more neighborhood level, representatives from Fire Safe Sonoma were on hand to promote the creation of localized Fire Safe Councils, community action groups to enhance fire safety. Individuals who have helped create actual Fire Safe Councils were there as well to speak about their experience.

“The real answer to not having your house burn down isn’t about what the firefighters can do once the fire is there”, said Caerlon Safford of Fire Safe Sonoma, “But what you did last year, the year before and the year before… you can have tremendous impact on the survival of your homes.”

Community-based Fire Safe Councils get involved in sponsoring projects such as fire safety assessments, fuel reduction, and community education and outreach. The creation of what’s known as a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) can aid in finding grant funding for projects.

A CWPP identifies and prioritizes mitigation projects, includes a thorough risk assessment of the area, and looks at the level of ignitability of structures.

In terms of “hardening” your home to better your chances in a wildfire, Safford suggested homeowners “start with the house and work outwards,” taking advantage of less-flammable landscaping, and identifying building materials and plant material in and around your house that can easily ignite.

“There should be no combustible plants five feet from the house,” said Safford. “The first five feet is absolutely critical. The first 30 feet taken care of is super, and if you go from 30 to 100 feet, you’ve done the work that will greatly improve the survivability of your home.”

Lisa Warner, who lives in the hilly and forested Trinity Road/Cavedale Road area, helped to create the Mayacamas Fire Safe Council. In the Nuns Fire, 95 percent of the 7,200-acre area burned, one-third of the homes were lost, and one person died.

Warner described going through the process of creating a Fire Safe Council. While she said it was frustrating at times – there are 18 steps necessary to establish a Fire Safe Council – it was worth it in the end.

With the help of Cal Fire and the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department, some of the accomplishments so far include holding a workshop to show residents how to conduct a burn pile correctly, distributing oak seedlings to help change forest species, holding a seminar on how people can harden their homes, educating the Mayacamas community on defensible space, and participating in grants with the Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council on creating fuel breaks.

Warner encouraged other communities to talk to their neighbors about creating a Fire Safe Council.

“We were simply a group of concerned citizens that decided to organize because we believe we must take responsibility and participate in our own safety,” said Warner.

Gorin is hosting another community meeting on May 4 at Altimira Middle School, from 9 a.m. to noon. That meeting will go into more detail on topics such as defensible space, firewise landscaping, and home hardening.