It's not too late to comply with fire space rule

September 08, 2008 12:00 am

A few eyebrows may have shot up at a story we ran Aug. 29.

"Cal Fire to cite defensible space scofflaws," read the headline. The story below it reported that property owners who had not cleared ground-level debris — leaves, pine needles, dead and downed limbs etc. — 100 feet out from their homes could face fines of up to $340.

"A little late, isn't it?" some readers may have asked, reasoning that Cal Fire should have kicked off its enforcement efforts earlier and that any clearing done now would come too late to do any real good.

They would be wrong:

• First, the state did launch its 2008 enforcement program in May. Citations issued now target properties which had failed earlier inspections and owners who have not cleared the brush and debris back from their homes. Fire Prevention Specialist Nancy Longmore said officers in Cal Fire's Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit have issued more than 60 citations this year and have actively enforced the 100-foot clearing requirement, enacted in 2005, for more than two years.

• The need for defensible space — that 100-foot cleared area that can give firefighters a decent shot at saving your home during a blaze — is paramount this time of year.

"We have had our most disastrous wildfires in September," said Longmore, pointing out that the Stanislaus Complex fire charred 147,000 acres in September of 1987. "Timber and brush have been drying out since May and conditions now are more dangerous than they've been all year."

So yes, she added, clearing property still makes sense and can still make a difference.

Ideally, of course, clearing should be done in the winter and early spring, when temperatures are low and humidity high.

"The safest way to do it is in the rain," said Jerry Tannhauser, of the Highway 108 Firesafe Council. "Using chain saws or other clearing equipment this time of year can produce sparks and itself start fires."

So those who clear now should use extreme caution, or hire professionals to do the work.

Longmore added that property owners should not be daunted by the 100-foot requirement, which became law after a series of wildfires in 2003 ravaged more than 740,000 acres in Southern California. This law does not require that every bush, tree and shrub within 100 feet of your home be leveled.

But what Cal Fire calls a "lean, clean and green zone" should extend 30 feet from your home. In this area all debris must be removed, tree limbs that overhang homes must be cut and any plants remaining should be watered, green and less then two feet tall. The next 70 feet are a "reduced vegetation zone," where owners must eliminate so-called "ladder fuels" — brush beneath larger trees that flames can climb.

Still, some may be daunted by the job — particularly seniors who may not have the ability, or cash, to meet the requirements. But, said Longmore, "We want to work with property owners. We're not going to be heavy-handed with some 93-year-old grandmother."

There are solutions: The Area 12 Agency on Aging, which serves Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, has a Chore Program through which eligible seniors can have their property cleared. Those interested should call Kristin Millhoff, program manager, at 532-6272.

Yes, as fire season continues, the state will continue to inspect properties and cite owners who do not comply with defensible-space requirements. But fear of a fine is hardly the best reason to comply.

Instead, to the best of your ability, put yourself out of the path of an onrushing conflagration. Cal Fire engine crews cannot protect every home in harm's way, so they'll decide where to take a stand based on odds of success — which are far better on properties with defensible space.