Jul 3, 2019
by Tim McKusick
The Winter rains brought us a bumper-crop of tall grasses that the Summer sun is starting to dry out. Although the creeks are still running (usually a sign that the fire danger is low), we have already experienced a few fires here on the Sonoma Coast. With help from the natural coastal moisture (dew point) helping to keep the flames from exploding into an inferno, our Emergency Responders were able to keep the small fires from turning into a catastrophic fire storm.
PG&E’s sub-contractors have been busy trimming trees and branches that threaten their overhead high-voltage wires. Helicopters have been seen on the ridge, inspecting the main lines.
Private property owners are doing their part as well, knowing that the fire abatement work they do on their own parcels actually benefits their neighbors and the greater Community. Along the first ridge in from the ocean, bulldozers carved in a long fire break along the downhill side of Meyers Grade/Seaview Roads, giving a measure of protection to the families that live in the coastal hills beyond. Together as a neighborhood, we can (and will!) survive, and thrive.
Most measures taken to lessen our fire danger are basic common-sense. Clean up the dead and dying flammable materials, of course is the mantra. Not so easy due to the density of Pines, Oaks, and oily underbrushes that permeate the hillsides, creek canyons and ravines. And larger parcels are even more labor-intensive. This is the price you pay for owning and living in the country. Even a few acres take major effort to maintain a fire-safe landscape. It is a commitment you make, to be good stewards of the lands you surround yourselves with.
Several maladies are affecting the Pines and Oaks on the coast and the inland hills. Standing dead trees are everywhere. The abundant winter rain seems to have helped spread the Sudden Oak Death (SOD) disease spores that kill the native Tan Bark Oaks. And the coastal pines are showing the effects of the long drought they just went through.
Previously green trees will turn brown, holding all of their tinder-dry dead leaves. The Pine trees are in a steady state of decline and are more obvious. The brown-grey dead trees stand in stark contrast to other healthy vegetation nearby.
It is a daunting task to address the thinning and clean-up that is desperately needed. The properties that are delinquent in their maintenance duties are obvious. CalFire and the County of Sonoma have programs to identify properties that are deemed a hazard and inform the owner of needed work to be fire-safe.
Unfortunately, they have a huge job to do. In these largely rural counties, it can be years before an area gets the attention it needs.
Many communities have their own rules and ordinancesthat dove-tail into the larger County and State’s fire-safe laws. Anything these communities can do takes part of the load off of the County & State, freeing resources to deal with the larger task at hand, the ever-increasing wildfire risks.
Here in the Timber Cove subdivision, many positive fire-safe changes have occurred in my 30 years here. Believe it or not, wood-shake roofs were mandatory in construction! And all of the thick underbrush choking the neighborhood was considered ‘screening’; property owners were prohibited from removing even dead trees or be subject to stiff penalties!
When the Oakland Hills and Geysers areas went up in flames, the State outlawed shake roofs, and the group running Timber Cove had to comply. But they still held strong on the no-trim, no-cut policy. When a couple of property owners cut some dead, dangerous Pine trees, they were fined thousands of dollars by the ‘Timber Cove Board’.
Suffice to say that common-sense finally prevailed, and fire-safe rules were developed and adopted.(It took a re-call election and a ‘changing-of-the-guard’, but positive advances in the health and safety of our Community were gained).
At that time Del Walters was our CDF Battalion Chief. (Del went on to be the head of CDF). When we, as a community got out there and trimmed the private roads, and started cleaning out the underbrush and dead trees, he came to our annual meeting and gave us a plaque, commending us on our hard work.
There was a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment. It really brought the community together.
But that was only the beginning, some 25 years ago. We found that managing a 500-acre forested subdivision is quite a feat. Through the diligence and hard work of a few dedicated volunteers, we were able to get grants for forest management studies, and hire professionals, which were needed to support our new Fire Safe Timber Cove plans.
CalFire and CDF advised and guided us through the process. It took years of fine-tuning and refining, but our program successfully addressed the build-up of dangerous fire fuels that have built up around our homes and properties. It was working, and most property owners were up for the task of maintaining their individual parcels, which made the entire neighborhood safer in the process.
At mile marker 35.87 on Coast Hwy 1, where the power lines cross the road, there is a dead forest choking the creek canyon that cuts through the most populated area around. A fire started by the power lines or a crash on Hwy 1 would spark an inferno that would not be stopped until it reached the Fire Station on the ridge.
Also, other areas, like Truckee, outlaw any and all outside barbeques, cooking & campfires and charcoal cookers during the Summer. We should learn from their lessons, and do the same. To smell smoke from neighboring Stillwater Cove County Parks during our recent Red Flag Days, was unsettling to say the least. It would only take one flaming marshmallow to start a firestorm.
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