Wait! What? The Tubbs Fire was October 2017. The Kincade Fire was October 2019. It’s only July. Are we really in Wildfire Season already? According to Battalion Chief Mike Weihman of the Rancho Adobe Fire District; yes, we are! Weihman said we’ve already “had a number of local fires.” They’ve responded to three or four grassland fires larger than a couple of acres. At this time of year that’s a little unusual; but with the lack of winter rains and hot dry summer conditions, the elements are already present. It may not be a Fire Storm risk on the level of Tubbs/Kincade yet, but it is Wildfire Season.
What should you be doing to protect your property and that of your neighbors? The number one thing is ensuring you have “Defensible Space.” That’s required by Sonoma County’s Ordinance 13 and 13A. Also adopted by Cotati City Council last spring, the rules are uniform regardless if you live within the city or surrounding countryside. Full information can be found at: https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Fire-Prevention/County-Fire-Code/.
Weihman described defensible space as cutting grasses, trimming trees so they don’t hang to the ground and clearing deadwood and brush from at least 30 feet up to 100 feet from buildings on your property. If you live in a subdivision, with smaller lots, it still applies to you. Everybody should work with their neighbors so “everybody is doing their part.”
What about vacant lots and farmland? They too must comply. At least ten feet of lot perimeter or fence line must be cleared and mowed as well as around buildings and structures on the property. Weihman said many farmers have been successful in using the grazing of goats, sheep, or cattle as an abatement strategy to stay within compliance. But unless you have access to a goat, most homeowners will cut the grass themselves.
What happens if a property is out of compliance? The Fire District targets different sections of the district each year for inspection. If they find a property out-of-compliance, the first step is to educate the property owner about bringing it into compliance. They’ll issue a warning letter giving them 30 days to come into compliance. Using county property tax records, this includes even those absentee owners who live elsewhere in the state or out-of-state. At the end of the 30-day period, they reinspect.
However, remember, if the fire danger is so hazardous as to need immediate action, that 30-day period may not apply. After the educational effort and warning letter, they can issue an administrative citation with a civil fine. After a couple of weeks, if the problem wasn’t fixed, the district can hire a contractor to come in and fix the hazard. That cost plus an additional administrative civil fine is charged to the property owner. After a hearing, and the property owner still hasn’t paid, a lien could be placed on the property using the property tax system.
Given the Fire Storms of 2017 and 2019, Weihman said his recent “experience has been” that owners are “very cooperative.” The goal is to educate and abate, not to be punitive unless necessary. He also advised that if you have neighbors being uncooperative in doing their part, there is a complaint system. You can call the district at their main number (707) 795-6011 to make a report. The district will then go out and inspect the property in question even if it’s not in the scheduled inspection zone. You can also call that number and request a voluntary assessment if you’re unsure whether your property complies with the Ordinances. There is no fee charged for a voluntary assessment.
In this era of COVID-19, the Fire District has also been impacted in these duties. For the inspections, more drive by inspections occur to limit contact with occupants which of course also impacts on educational efforts. Perhaps the greatest impact has been on Mutual Aid agreements. Unlike the 2017 and 2019 Fire Storms, because of the pandemic, when they call on other Fire Districts for Mutual Aid, they are mindful of virus impacts. Instead of setting up tent cities, to house and feed assisting departments on large fires; they need to plan how to find hotels or other accommodations for those functions. Personal space considerations come into play as does not sharing or touching other department’s equipment.