Union Democrat staff

The mornings are freezing, with frost coating grasses and ponds icing over.

The last thing on your mind as you bundle up against the morning cold is probably fire, as it might take napalm to trigger a blaze in some of the Mother Lode's shady, north-slope areas.

Still, now is the time to start thinking about fire - or, more specifically, how to stop it.

Fire season may start in May, but fire prevention season is now.

Winter is the time to get out your chain saw, chipper and clippers. It's time to work on creating what firefighters say is the most valuable tool in keeping fire at bay: defensible space around your home.

Law requires homeowners to clear ground-level debris - leaves, pine needles, dead and downed limbs, etc. - 100 feet out from their homes. "Ladder fuels" - brush through which flames can climb into trees - must also be eliminated.

Within 30 feet a "lean, clean and green zone," in which limbs overhanging homes are cut and plants be watered and kept under two feet tall, is required.

But why now?

The answer is simple: Sawing, mowing and chipping equipment can create sparks, which during or just before fire season can themselves ignite blazes. While clearing during fire season is better than not clearing at all, why take the chance?

Also, debris burns banned during fire season are legal through most of the winter and are an effective way to get rid of dead wood that might in a few months be fuel for a wildfire.

Finally, working on a crisp February day beats the dust, sweat and grime of doing the same job in May or June.

The clearing requirements, extended by Cal Fire from 30 to 100 feet from homes after disastrous fires blackened 740,000 acres in Southern California in 2003, are hardly frivolous. Uncleared lots can fuel wildfires, lead them to neighbors' homes and leave firefighters with nowhere to take a stand.

"Your property is our job site," points out Sonora-based Cal Fire Battalion Chief Barry Rudolph.

Rudolph advocates "personal responsibility and accountability" in living up to the clearing requirements and, thus, creating a safer community. On a larger scale, Firesafe Councils in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties coordinate community prevention projects.

The reality is this: Firefighters evaluate properties in the path of blazes as they plan strategy. "Can we defend this property?" is their key question. If the answer is no, they'll move to the next property that is cleared and defensible.

What's more, an increasing number of insurance companies are insisting that their clients be fire safe.

"We're getting a lot of requests for inspections for insurance," said Dennis Townsend, fire prevention bureau chief for Cal Fire's Tuolumne-Calaveras unit.

So how are Mother Lode property owners doing in meeting their responsibilities?

"Not that well," said Townsend. "Eight to 12 percent of the properties we inspect do not comply."

And this year, he added, up to 600 land owners may be cited and could face $340 fines. But that penalty is a last resort.

"We work with people," said Townsend. "We give them more time and help them out. We'd rather see compliance than cite anyone."

Getting the work done now - either by yourself, through a contractor or with the help of programs available to senior citizens (call Area 12 Agency on Aging at 532-6272) - will give you a jump on what could be a long hot fire season.