County, local fire departments begin inspecting for hazards
Plan is to educate and encourage people to work on safe vegetation management
Sonoma County has just over 1,500 square miles of land, most of it packed with wildlife, vegetation, and lots of trees. A huge proportion of the trees, shrubbery and grasses are tinder-dry after years of drought and, more to the point, a very dry winter and spring. Anyone living here over the past three years knows exactly how deadly those conditions can be.
The county adopted a set of wildfire prevention measures back in 2016, updated them in 2018, and has only last month tweaked them again. Last year, for the first time, fire departments countywide, including Kenwood and Glen Ellen, sent out trained inspectors to physically inspect 200 properties in each district, citing property owners for problem conditions requiring remediation. The inspectors then returned a month later to see if the work was done.
“Education is one of our most important goals,” Sonoma Fire Marshal James Williams emphasized, presenting an update to county fire safety codes. “Enforcement and abatement is a last resort for flagrant violations.” Williams spoke to county supervisors voting on tightening the county’s fire regulations last June, acknowledging there are nowhere near enough trained inspectors to check every property or money to pay for such an expansive project.
Inspections officially started this year on June 22, but have been delayed by COVID requirements and regulations, Williams said later. All inspections are expected to be complete by the end of July. They will be made by active duty fire personnel who have been trained in how to effectively work with property owners and do inspections.
Properties being inspected fall into two types of areas: Local Responsibility Areas (LRA) and State Responsibility Areas (SRA). While boundaries sometimes overlap, LRAs are typically protected by local and city fire departments. SRAs are rural properties subject to state safety requirements and inspected by Cal Fire personnel.
Sonoma is one of a handful of California counties that sets its own fire safety standards, which are permitted so long as they don’t relax any state requirements.
Properties to be inspected this year have been selected. You can look up your address online or download a document of all addresses selected (see sidebar page 16). Kenwood’s targeted properties are mainly on the west end (Treehaven, Turtle Creek, Brown, etc. There are no properties in Glen Ellen this year for local fire inspections since most of the town lies in an SRA. According to Cal Fire Chief Stephen Millosovich, his people will be inspecting areas on Morningside Mountain and in Diamond A.
Cal Fire will be doing 2,500 SRA inspections countywide, Williams said, and he expects the same number for LRA inspections throughout the county.
“About 50 percent of those will be non-compliant,” he predicted, based on last year’s results.
With the power to enforce abatement in hand, Williams said there were only five forced abatements last year. Supervised adult crews (working in lieu of jail or fines) did the correctional work for an average cost of $2,500. Those costs were either paid or became liens on the property.
The county removed a $1,000 a day possible penalty, and reverted enforcement to long-standing general enforcement laws, which allow a $1,000 penalty overall. The revised ordinance also added a private right of action for injunctive relief, “which means a neighbor can seek their own injunctive relief if they want to do so,” Chief Williams said.
Deputy County Counsel Linda Schiltgen endorsed the changes.
“It is a tool to avail members of the public,” she said, “working through the county and Cal Fire, and it is not different from other methods of code enforcement.”
“I’m grateful for that,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin added. “In many areas I represent we have many absentee property owners who do not take care of their properties. Fire Safe Councils want mechanisms to reach out and touch absentees.” Fire Safe Councils consist of local residents throughout the county who work with neighbors and communities to educate people on fire safety.
Williams expects up to 4,400 complaints. “We may do up to 7,000 between Cal Fire and our own.” He said 10 complaints came in just the week before.
Parcels larger than five acres have also been added to the list of properties to be inspected. “Fire doesn’t care how big a property is,” Williams noted.
Basic requirements are that residential property owners must maintain a 30-foot defensible space around all buildings. This means grass is cut to six inches or less, tree branches and limbs need to be trimmed to six feet off the ground, shrubs need to be maintained, and climbing vines need to kept free of dead and dying materials or removed from trees and buildings.
On unimproved parcels, flammable, dead or dying vegetation within 10 feet of neighboring structures and roadways needs to be removed.
“This doesn’t mean clear cutting,” Williams emphasized. Trees in the 10-foot area need to be pruned and limbed up to six feet.
The rules are also flexible for riparian corridors.
There is a blanket exemption for agricultural operations and cannabis cultivation.
Fire Chiefs Daren Bellach (Kenwood), Stephen Akre (Sonoma Valley), and Chief Williams all encourage everyone to know what’s expected and to prepare for possible fires – now. Kenwood and Sonoma Valley fire departments will be beginning their inspections soon, looking to do about 10 a day until the list is complete.
See the accompanying sidebar for a list of resources to learn more – much more – about vegetation management in wildfire prone areas like the one in which we live.