Chimney Sweep

California neighborhoods put together for wildfires with assist from federal program

The harsh reality of fire-prone California has caused a kind of awakening in Jackson Oaks, a wooded hillside community in Santa Clara County surrounded by dry, oak-strewn grasslands.

Warm winds blow in a steep, arid canyon almost every afternoon, a situation that has filled the residents of the 505 ranch-style homes on the east side of Morgan Hill with a premonition that was not there until the last few years California wildfires raged years.

The tales of fiery destruction and death have turned the scenic view from Jackson Oaks of Anderson Lake into an alarming panorama of fuel. Hundreds of communities across California are faced with the same situation as they seek to save their neighborhoods from the increasingly threatening forces of nature.

“We all know the danger. Every year there is a bushfire around here somewhere, ”said Jim Realini, president of the Jackson Oaks Homeowners Association. The residents “saw the news and heard the stories, and we said to everyone,” We live in one of these areas. “Everyone is much more aware this year.”

Jackson Oaks is one of 222 California churches that are doing something about it. Residents have joined Firewise, a federal program that helps neighborhoods near the wilderness – areas called the “Wildland-Urban Interface” – prepare for forest fires.

The program, which encourages residents to work together on fire safety projects, has grown steadily in California and has increased after the November campfire destroyed 14,000 homes and killed 85 people in the town of Paradise, Butte County. Over the past year, 81 California neighborhoods and parishes have joined the program, a 57% increase in one year.

“We’ve really seen tremendous growth,” said Michele Steinberg, director of the wildfire division of the Massachusetts National Fire Protection Association, which founded Firewise in 12 communities in 2002. There are now 1,500 participants across the country.

“It’s really sad that these types of disasters are required for people to take action, but I think people are finally starting to understand it and say, ‘Yeah, this is happening. I’ll do something about it, ”she said.

Firewise, managed by a consortium of forest fire organizations and federal agencies, recognizes and rewards neighborhood groups for completing a six-tier program. Members must form committees, conduct forest fire risk assessments, develop action and evacuation plans for residents, and use volunteers to clear the brush and work on other projects to thwart the fire.

The program provides annual grants to participating homeowners associations and jurisdictions that are granted by the Fire Protection Association with assistance from insurance companies. Many insurance companies give homeowners involved in Firewise a 5% discount.

Jackson Oaks joined the program four years ago, and Realini has since persuaded neighboring Holiday Lakes Estates to join, meaning residents of around 1,100 homes in the hills above Morgan Hill are now participating. He said his homeowners association, which holds two working groups a year, receives a $ 500 annual grant that he uses for fire safety work.

“Typically 20-22 people work and there are a lot of seniors,” said Marian Sacco, vice president of the homeowners association and director of the Firewise program. She said the neighborhood volunteered an average of 2,400 hours a year to weed and clean debris on empty land, including a large median along the main road.

Realini recently drove around the neighborhood to show the chopped up juniper bushes, what he called “turpentine torches,” which were piling up in the neighborhood, waiting to be dragged away. Up to 70% of homeowners have cut down the fire-prone bushes that were used as landscaping when the area was developed in the 1960s and 1970s after the firefighter declared them dangerous.

Morgan Hill is one of many places in California where fire is a constant threat. Around 5 million homes have been built nationwide along the intersection of wildlands and cities, meaning they come up against volatile open spaces and often overlook chimney-like canyons.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Safety has designated 189 communities with nearly 3 million residents as “Very High Risk Zones”. This includes large houses that cover the hills and protrude from wildland areas in the hills of the East Bay and are located in every county from Marin to Santa Clara.

Firewise is a nationwide program initiated by the National Fire Protection Association. It disseminates information on how to adapt to the threat of forest fires and encourages neighbors to work together and take action to protect homes and lives.

What is required of a Firewise community?

A Firewise location must have eight to 2,500 single-family homes. Residents must form a board or committee and work with the local fire department or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Safety to prepare a forest fire risk assessment.

Each location must document the equivalent of one volunteer hour per residential unit for measures to reduce the risk of forest fire. This means that in a community with 100 homes, residents have to volunteer 100 hours a year.

How does a neighborhood apply?

Applications can be submitted online at

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At least 5,000 homes in the hills of Lafayette and Walnut Creek are in “priority areas,” the fire department said. At least 5,000 more cover fire endangered ridges and slopes in the Oakland and Berkeley hills.

In many cities and counties, strict state fire protection regulations apply in high-risk zones. These include restrictions on building materials and fire retardant landscaping requirements. Street widths of at least 22 feet, which allow fire engines to maneuver as residents flee, have become common in new hillside neighborhoods.

Cal Fire has done everything to improve the situation and requires 100 feet of “defensible space” – essentially fire protection – around homes, but the rule can be difficult to enforce.

The Firewise program, which includes state and local regulations as well as best practices from fire safety experts, is growing in popularity everywhere but has made great strides in Marin County, where thousands of homes are nestled in the hills and canyons adjacent to Mount Tamalpais.

Fire scientists have long classified Marin, with its narrow, winding roads and wooded hilly landscapes, as the next possible candidate for a catastrophic fire. These include forested land in and around Mill Valley, believed by many to be the most dangerous place in Marin, and 251 square kilometers of unregulated wooded and oak-strewn land – more than five times the size of San Francisco.

Todd Lando, executive coordinator of FireSafe Marin, a nonprofit that helps homeowners reduce the risk of fire, said Marin County has 43 approved Firewise neighborhoods, including a dozen in Mill Valley. That’s more than any other county in the state, he said.

Marin County hasn’t had a major wildfire since the fall of 1995 when a smoldering campfire, lit by some students, spiraled out of control on Mount Vision in the Point Reyes National Seashore, blackened 12,000 acres and destroyed 45 homes.

Still, Lando said, there is good reason to be concerned. A huge fire burned over Mount Tamalpais in the Mill Valley in 1929, and an even bigger fire struck in September 1923, scorching 50,000 acres from Novato to Bolinas. This fire was bigger than the Tubbs Fire that raged in Napa and Sonoma counties in 2017, killing 22 people and destroying thousands of homes in Santa Rosa.

“If that fire started today, we would be looking at 5,000 to 8,000 houses burning,” Lando said. “It’s been nearly 100 years of vegetation growth, with very few fires since then. That story of fires is a story that repeats itself. So we have every reason to believe that fire can happen today. “

Another area with intense focus is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where the number of houses built in areas with high fire risk has been growing steadily for decades.

Kristen Cook, who heads the Firewise Council at You Bet, a former gold rush town in Nevada County, said the program grew from zero to 600 participants after handing out flyers in February reading, “Are you ready for wildfire? You bet. “

The main concern in the wooded community is the narrow 9 mile long road that winds through the forest and is the only way in and out. Cook is working with residents to ensure they have “bags” of clothing, water, radios, tools, and medical kits ready, and to park their cars outside with at least half a tank of fuel.

“In the past, a red flag day meant it was hot, so let’s go to the river,” Cook said. “The campfire created awareness of what a red flag warning really means.”

Back in Jackson Oaks, Realini stopped his car on a cliff overlooking the vast gold-colored canyon and distant reservoir and pointed north, which is officially known to be the greatest risk of fire. He was on a winding mountain road, one of two roads in and out of Jackson Oaks. A recent fire safety study estimated that if everyone were to leave at the same time, it would take residents 2½ hours to get out.

“In the afternoon, from around 3pm to 6pm, we get a north wind, and that’s where most of the fires come,” Realini said, taking in the view. “We all know the danger now and we still have a lot to do.”

Peter Fimrite is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @pfimrite

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