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News: 09/01/2019

Ecologists concerned with wildfire safety programs

Array of new rules and responses to fires needs clarification, study

What’s good for fire protection may not be good for wild plants and animals, according to Ellie Insley a landscape architect who has practiced for the past 35 years in Glen Ellen and Napa.

At its Aug. 2 meeting, Insley called on the Glen Ellen Forum to look into the matter in more detail.

“There’s got to be a way to be firewise, waterwise, and wildlife friendly,” she said.

Insley has served 12 years on the board of the Sonoma Ecology Center and is a member of the California Native Plant Society, a group dedicated to husbanding California’s indigenous plant life in the face of major incursions by non-native species over the past century.

“I had been to a county-sponsored fire safety meeting in May, and on the same day went to visit a native plant society demonstration garden,” Insley said. “They were far apart. The fire safety meeting called for keeping vegetation far apart, both vertically and horizontally.” That isn’t necessarily what’s good for wildlife. The Native Plant Society garden emphasized keeping plantings close together to provide habitat for birds and other critters. “There’s a big disconnect here,” said Insley.

Prior to the recent years’ wildfires, there hadn’t been a lot of proactive wildfire safety requirements. Since then, the state and county have generated multiple laws, ordinances, rules and programs aimed at reducing hazard to structures (and their occupants) through measures like removing vegetation, hardening homes, and other direct methods.

“We need to do our best to manage vegetation in such a way that we protect homes, but not negatively affect biodiversity,” Insley said, noting that while simple vegetation removal may provide some measure of immediate fire safety, it could backfire in the long run if it causes erosion, water degradation and leads to unhealthy vegetation.

Insley now heads a new Glen Ellen Forum committee tasked with looking at possible conflicts between new fire safety regulations and existing ecological protections, and, on a more basic level, what needs to be looked at to devise a balanced plan for moving forward.

The new committee, comprised of Insley, Mark Newhouser, Caitlin Cornwall, Margaret Spaulding, Alice Horowitz and Tracy Salcedo, was to meet on Aug. 29 (after this paper has gone to print) with County Fire Marshal James Williams, a representative from the county counsel’s office, and someone from Permit Sonoma. Williams is a veteran of Oakland’s devastating wildfires in 1991. Alameda County now conducts over 25,000 annual inspections for vegetation management in high fire threat areas, and Sonoma County is starting to implement a similar system.

“We are organizing on a collaborative basis,” Insley said. Newhouser emphasized that point.

“We bring perspectives on environmental concerns to start the conversation,” Newhouser said. “And they may not be easy to resolve. We want to get everybody to the table and look at the potential options and outcomes from a balanced discussion to protect life, property and the environment. That’s what it’s about.”

“That’s a big discussion,” Williams said. His career has been dedicated to fire protection and includes firsthand experience with major wildfires. “Depending on where you are, people have very strong beliefs and concerns, but have differences in approaches.” Williams said the county will be working closely with local fire districts. He also emphasized the dearth of funding available to underwrite enforcement.

The county’s first inspections started in Kenwood and Glen Ellen in July, looking at 200 properties in each area, almost all situated on Sonoma Creek, a riparian habitat that has been the focus of intense study and rehabilitation for decades, and one that many people do not want to see overly managed in terms of vegetation clearing.

The inspections are being carried out by the firefighters staffing the local departments, who are sent to a property to inspect it and issue a Notice of Violation and Order to Comply if they find problems that should be addressed. Homeowners then have 30 days to get the remediation done. If a second inspection finds any or all of the work not done, the county has the power to have the work done on its own dime and put a lien on the property until it gets paid back.

Having the power and exercising it are two different things, Williams noted.

“We have limited funding,” the fire marshal said. “The reality is there is more property needing abatement than we have money to fund abatement.”

The situation seems awkward for everybody concerned: firemen policing landscaping, homeowners potentially at odds with their local fire departments, the county having to go into the landscaping business by enforcing liens on property owners, all the while enforcing various sets of vegetation management rules that may or may not be applicable to a spectrum of ecological circumstances.

Stay tuned.


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