Sonoma Valley homeowners tearing out juniper bushes to protect properties from future fires

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home in the 2017 wildfires, is urging neighbors to ‘junk the juniper.’ The highly-flammable bush can be seen throughout Sonoma Valley.|

There are dozens of different types of juniper, ranging from low-lying shrubs to tall majestic trees. Some have spiky, needle-like leaves; others have flat, softer leaves that almost look like they've been braided. The berries of some are used to make gin. The trees are easy to grow and resistant to both deer and drought.

The trees line the landscape of residences throughout Sonoma Valley. And they burn like torches, prompting a recent cry to eradicate the trees.

'Let's get rid of the juniper,' said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin.

Gorin's First District covers Sonoma Valley and parts of southeast Santa Rosa, where large swaths of land and homes burned in the 2017 wildfires — including her own home in Oakmont. Gorin has thrown her support behind the 'Junk the Juniper' campaign in her Oakmont neighborhood. She believes the eucalyptus and juniper in her yard helped to ignite her property and the home.

The juniper crusade isn't limited to Sonoma Valley. Neighborhoods in the dry, fire-prone region of northern Nevada have been ridding their landscape of junipers in a program that includes the Nevada Division of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District.

'Oakmont is just swaddled with junipers,' Gorin said. The same holds true for many residential developments throughout Sonoma Valley.

The 2017 fires threatened Oakmont, burning about 60% of Trione-Annadel State Park that borders the community. Mandatory evacuation orders stood for 10 days. Gorin's house was one of two in Oakmont that burned; another home in adjacent Wild Oak was badly damaged. As of August, 75 homes have been rebuilt in Gorin's district, including Bennett Valley, with 454 homes under construction, according to Permit Sonoma. Construction is pending on 102 permitted properties in the district, while 60 more are still awaiting permit review.

Residents whose homes survived the fires are taking steps to protect their properties from future blazes. A growing number are casting a wary eye on juniper, a popular plant used in landscapes across the valley.

'Junk the Juniper' campaign

The Oakmont Village Association is encouraging homeowners to remove their junipers, which is no small task.

'We have 3,200 homes in Oakmont. Almost all of them have junipers,' said Christel Antone, who works at the Oakmont Village Association office and is the point of contact for the program.

She is working with the various sub-homeowner associations and the fire prevention nonprofit Fire Safe Sonoma to better safeguard homes in Oakmont from fire. People feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do to create defensible space and 'harden' their homes, Antone said. Hardening a home includes re-roofing with a fire-resistant material such as metal, composition shingles or tile; covering all vent openings with 1/8- to 1/4-inch metal mesh; and protecting eaves and soffits with ignition-resistant material.

But to get people started, homeowners can junk the junipers, she said.

'We want to keep it as simple as possible. We tell them to just do it in steps,' Antone said.

Oakmont is a 'fire wise' community, which means it has developed a wildfire risk assessment and agreed to make efforts to reduce fire risks. Getting rid of junipers is one small step.

There are other flammable plants in Oakmont, but Gorin and Antone said getting rid of the junipers is a good first step.

Cheryl Dean, another Oakmont resident, had her juniper removed recently and is on the Junk the Juniper committee. Her corner lot was surrounded by a juniper hedge 50 yards long and 5 feet deep. She was about to hire a landscaping company to remove it, but three friends volunteered and tackled the work, she said.

'One guy said 'I have a chainsaw.' One guy said 'I have a truck.' And the other guy said 'I'll bring the beer,'' she said. 'Over the course of two days, they took it out and hauled it away.'

On a recent Monday, Oakmont resident Sue Dibble was watching a couple of men she hired remove four different varieties of juniper on her property and a tree that was too close to the house. She didn't want to think about how much it was going to cost her, she said. The juniper just needed to go for safety's sake.

Oakmont applied for a grant for brush removal from Cal Fire, but didn't get it. Antone said they will try again because many Oakmont residents are on fixed incomes and can't afford to pay to have their juniper removed.

Dean's home was used as a test model, a showcase of sorts, to demonstrate what the danger looks like and what it looks like after the juniper is removed. Now she's saving up to replace the juniper with fire-resistant landscaping.

Eradicating juniper no panacea

While juniper has a high oil content, is combustible and can generate large amounts of heat when it burns, Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams doesn't want everyone in Sonoma County to think they need to remove every juniper.

'People want to be judicious about how and what they remove,' he said. 'You need a balance. You need to do what's best for the ecosystem.'

Removing all flammable plants could cause damage in another way, Williams cautioned. Plants on slopes are helping to prevent landslides, for example. He contends that every situation needs to be taken individually.

He worked in Oakland during its 1991 firestorm, where he witnessed the capricious nature of fire. Some people swear the oak tree in their yard ignited their home in flames, while others contend their oak tree protected the house. Sometimes he's just 'dumbfounded,' he said, as to why one house burned and another did not.

He supports Oakmont's efforts, though, and suggests that in addition to removing combustible plants, start at the house and work your way out. Remember the 'Three Rs' of defensible space — removal, reduction and replacement.

For now, Oakmont's first R is the removal of junipers.

'We're involving people in the process in making this whole place safer,' Dean said. 'We're really doing some good work trying to make our community as fire safe as we possibly can make it.'

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