Inspections at 3,500+ properties to help reduce wildfire risk in county
Sarah C. Phelps
Local fire departments will buckle down on vegetation management in the coming months, aided by a newly expanded county program and funding commitments.
Defensible space inspections on parcels of five acres or less will begin this month, said Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach. The priority in Kenwood will be areas along Warm Springs Road from Sonoma Highway to Bennett Valley Road, including Slattery Road – areas that didn’t burn in the October 2017 wildfires. The areas unaffected by the fire are also the areas where there is the highest risk for future fire, he said.
Property owners will receive a notification in the mail this month. Ideally, owners will have already taken proactive defensible space measures including cutting grass to four inches or shorter, cutting back any branches overhanging rooflines, and ensuring there is clear address signage so first responders can identify the home. Fire personnel will also focus on maintaining a roadside clearance of 10 feet and clearing tree limbs from trunks lower than six feet from the ground.
In the Glen Ellen area, Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA), which has an operation contract with the Glen Ellen Fire District, also starts inspections this month. Focus areas will be Warm Springs Road in Glen Ellen, London Ranch Road, and areas like Nuns Canyon and Nelligan Road, said SVFRA Chief Steve Akre. Inspections by both departments are anticipated to last through August.
In the Cavedale and Trinity roads area, which sustained severe fire damage in the 2017 fires, Cal Fire will continue its Defensible Space Inspection Program, which differs slightly from the county’s newly expanded vegetation management program. The unincorporated Mayacamas area falls outside the boundaries of any local fire district and is therefore served primarily by Cal Fire and the all-volunteer Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department. The Mayacamas area has taken a huge step forward that others haven’t, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Kirk Van Wormer, referring to another all-volunteer community effort, the new Mayacamas Fire Safe Council. However, the council did not receive a hoped-for grant from Cal Fire this year to complete a shaded fuel break, although it did receive funding for wildfire readiness signage. MVFD, which used a Cal Fire grant last year to perform weed mowing along single-lane Cavedale Road, did not receive that grant again, either. At its board meeting this month MVFD will discuss using its own funds to perform the work this year, estimated at about $7,000, said Allison Ash, MVFD board president.
About half of the county’s 35 fire districts will take part in the county’s more proactive vegetation management program. Last year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors allocated $500,000 to the new program, which translates into $19,000 in reimbursement funds available this year to both Kenwood and Glen Ellen fire departments. In July (when the new 2019-20 fiscal year begins) funding for the county’s program will bump up to $900,000 and continue annually for the next three years.
This infusion of money puts teeth into a program which has existed within the county budget for years, but was only complaint-driven, and lacked funding for enforcement. Akre said SVFRA has had a weed abatement program – which will continue – but has not had monies designated specifically for vegetation management, until now. “We have not been able to go out and do what we will be able to do this year,” he said.
The county’s expanded vegetation management program, which is being driven by the Sonoma County Fire Prevention Division of Permit Sonoma, is more stringent than Cal Fire’s mandate, said Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams. Through the program, fire personnel will be able to inspect both improved and unimproved parcels, have the ability to abate hazards on properties, and place a lien on those properties, if necessary.
“The county hopes to gain voluntary compliance through education,” said Williams. Based on program data received from other jurisdictions, as well a Sonoma County pilot program, it generally takes three to five years for the community awareness and commitment to be fully realized. The county anticipates inspections on approximately 3,500 properties that are identified as having high risk for wildfire.
Complaints about properties of concern should still be made directly to your local fire department, said Williams.
The new $900,000 annual budget will not only go to reimburse local fire departments for small parcel inspections and abatement, but also towards large and county-owned parcel project implementation, community defensible space education, advertising, and program and data management.
In order to commit those funds, however, the county supervisors, at their April 16 meeting, had to make a tough choice, rerouting some of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) money that would normally go toward arts and community grants. Actions included the reduction of department budgets of the Economic Development Board and Sonoma County Tourism (for one year) and the elimination of funding for chamber of commerces and visitors centers (after the next two years). TOT money, a tax levied on overnight stays in unincorporated Sonoma County, makes up the majority of the county’s general fund. Currently at 12 percent, it raised $21.9 million in 2017-18.
Backed into a corner by a $12 million budget gap for 2019-20, the county is scrambling to address basic infrastructure needs as well as prepare for the next disaster, whether it be fire, flood, or earthquake.
“We are looking at an incredibly dire budget picture,” said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, referencing the approximately $33.4 million needed to fund current programs and additional requests by county department heads, with only $8 million set aside in the general fund to pull from.
“As much I want to support the arts, I have those fundamental infrastructure failure, public safety, metal health concerns that I am confronted with on a daily basis,” she said. “The demand always exceeds the revenue.”
At the meeting, the supervisors also acknowledged that long-term funding for countywide vegetation management will also be necessary beyond 2023, but voiced hope that future budget talks can provide a solution.
A solution might be found in the pending consolidation of small fire districts into larger ones, resulting in more efficiencies.
Or a solution could be found in the “district formation funds,” a newly created bucket of money also approved by supervisors on April 16. According Jennifer Laroque, Communications and Engagement Coordinator for the Sonoma County Administrator’s Office, district formation funds will be available to “help address the needs in rural areas that are becoming more municipal in nature,” to help establish “self help districts” and self-generated funding to address those “municipal challenges.” In other words, money will now be available for communities who might want to set up a special “benefit assessment” and tax themselves in order to fund mitigation of certain community concerns – road repair or vegetation management, for example. Laroque did not elaborate on details. Supervisors allocated $175,000 a year for four years to fund the “professional services” to assist “self help districts.” An agency from those communities would still need to spearhead this effort, a fire department or a Municipal Advisory Council, for example.