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Wildfire awareness, prevention should start now

The grass is still green, the mornings are crisp and, on occasion, rain still slips into our weather forecasts.

So why are our fire departments making such a big deal about wildfire awareness? And, anyway, what can we do about it?

The answers are self-evident to anyone who has had a close encounter with fire or to longtime residents familiar with the Mother Lode's tinder-dry summers and history of devastating wildfires.

The past few summers, in which fire losses have been minimal, are exceptions. More often summer has brought fires that have forced evacuations, destroyed homes and blackened hundreds of thousands of acres of range and forest land.

In the1990s alone, more than 150,000 acres in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties burned. And 20 years ago, in 1987, the Stanislaus Complex Fire alone charred 147,000.

As the May 6-12 Wildfire Awareness Week approaches, fire departments throughout the Mother Lode are hoping those memories still haunt. Because they could inspire property owners to get their homes ready for survival.

"Why 100 feet? Because defensible space is YOUR responsibility" is the theme of this year's awareness week in California.

The slogan refers to three-year-old Department of Forestry and Fire Protection rules requiring that property owners trim grass, clear brush and thin trees either up to 100 feet from their homes or to their property lines.

The work can give fire crews a fighting chance to save homes during a blaze.

And the message is being delivered now because there is still time to get the job done.

Leading the awareness charge in Tuolumne County is the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, which in the past four years has won hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grants for fire safety projects ranging from brush disposal to chipping to major firebreaks.

The Highway 108 Fire Safe Council will also host a special fire prevention awareness program at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tuolumne County Fire Department's Station 57, at 21720 Phoenix Lake Road. The meeting will feature preparedness and prevention tips and a special presentation called "Wildfire Prevention Then and Now."

The Calaveras Foothills Fire Safe Council focused its awareness efforts on a home and garden show at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds last month. But information on defensible space is available at CDF posts and other fire stations in the county.

Adding urgency, this season's low rainfall totals (Sonora's is about half of normal) could bring a highly dangerous fire season: Fuel moisture levels are plummeting, wind or heat could worsen the situation and Southern California's fires could draws crews from around the state, leaving Tuolumne and Calaveras counties understaffed and vulnerable.

And if this is not enough motivation to clear and thin around your home, know that the CDF is already inspecting homes for compliance with the state's 100-foot defensible space and will cite owners who do not meet requirements.

In the face of oncoming summer, preparedness is paramount and fire safe councils and fire departments should be commended for bringing its importance to the public.

The Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, an an exemplary group of hard-working volunteers, deserves particular recognition for delivering the message and being a crucial part of the solution.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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