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One year later: Fire lessons learned

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Local emergency officials and Sonoma residents have learned much in the year since the deadly October 2017 North Bay wildfires, and the county has developed a number of preparedness tools based on the painful experience. And there are many ways Sonoma Valley residents can help protect themselves as well.

Fire officials say increased staffing on red flag fire days, abatement enforcement and educational efforts should make a big difference in preventing and fighting future fires. Also, creating defensible space and using fire-resistant materials and techniques are powerful tools for Sonoma Valley residents.

Fire officials agree that higher temperatures and a large amount of dead trees and other flora in the local landscape likely mean highly intense fires will be commonplace in years to come. This means that preparedness is the watchword, fire chiefs said.

“We can’t predict weather,” said Ray Mulas, fire chief of the Schell-Vista station. “What we can do is expect the worst and prepare. If we start thinking it’s not going to be as bad, we’re going to get caught.”

Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre agreed.

“Last year saw a big impact to us here in the Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County, but we saw it again this year with Redding, with Lake County and Napa County,” Akre said Monday. “We have seen extreme fire behavior, extreme fire spread. And we need to be prepared for that to continue.”

County fire chiefs have put together a program for additional staffing on red flag warning days that is now fully in effect, the fire chief said.

“When we have a red flag condition like we did this past weekend, we staff up a minimum of five additional fire engines and try to get 10 additional engines staffed” across the county, Akre said.

This past weekend, a red flag warning was in effect. One additional engine was stationed at the Schell-Vista station and two additional engines were stationed in the Sonoma Valley, the chief said. One of the additional engines was in El Verano, the other in Glen Ellen, Akre said.

“They were on the spot, ready to go, organized with a leader, able to respond to either incidents here in the Sonoma Valley or anywhere in the county or a neighboring county if needed,” Akre said.

“That’s what we’re doing countywide and certainly in the Sonoma Valley to address staffing and higher-fire-danger weather,” he said.

The county is still fine-tuning its Wireless Emergency Alerts, which are part of a national system and are sent to cell phones. September testing of this system revealed problems including inaccurate targeting, with messages received in areas far beyond specific areas where they were aimed.

“SoCoAlerts and Nixle alerts are reliable and effective. The wireless emergency alerts are getting better, but we still have work to do,” Akre said.

Large numbers of Sonoma Valley and county residents have signed up to receive Nixle alerts, as well as SoCoAlerts, and these systems have been successful.

To sign up for Nixle, residents can visit https://local.nixle.com/county/ca/sonoma/ or text 888777; to sign up for SoCoAlerts, which come from the county, visit https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/FES/Emergency-Management/SoCo-Alert/Statistics/.

Working together, Valley fire agencies, county officials and Cal Fire have held numerous educational meetings with neighborhood and homeowners’ associations about how to create defensible space, Akre said.

Also, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors allocated $500,000 this year in one-time funds to address defensible space and vegetation management. Sonoma Valley fire agencies used some of the money to clear piles of dead trees and brush, primarily in Glen Ellen and Kenwood.

The program also funds weed abatement enforcement.

“We send annual notices to owners of known vacant lots within our service area as a reminder that it’s time to clean up,” Akre said. Residents who are concerned about properties that haven’t been cleared of dead weeds and brush can contact the fire district to request action, he said.

“There’s a new ordinance the county has in place. If a homeowner in the unincorporated area of the county doesn’t comply with weed abatement the county can arrange for the property to be cleared and the owner billed as a final step in the process,” Akre said, adding that this would only happen after multiple inspections and multiple opportunities were given to the owner to comply.

With regard to how homeowners can help protect their homes, the Sonoma County Fire Marshal emphasized the importance of keeping vegetation under control year-round.

“It’s a never-ending home maintenance process,” said Fire Marshal James Williams.

“You want to make sure you have at least 100 feet of defensible space around your home and structures. Cut grasses to below six inches, make sure trees aren’t overhanging your home, make sure you have a spark arrester on your chimney,” Williams said.

He added, “Make sure you have visible signage on your home so firefighters can find it easily.”

Defensible space doesn’t mean no shrubs or trees near the house, but rather a well-manicured yard, Williams said.

Caerleon Safford, coordinator for Fire Safe Sonoma, said within that 100 feet of defensible space, homeowners should create a 5-foot non-combustible zone, working from the house outward.

“No flammable mulches or flammable plants like conifers or juniper. Use non-flammable mulch,” Safford said.

Defensible space is one part of home survival, she said. The second is what’s calling structural hardening, referring to the structure of the house. The most vulnerable elements of the structure are, in order, the roof; the roof edge; vents; decks; windows; and siding, Safford said.

“Your roof should be made of Class A materials. If you don’t know if it is, get a roofer to inspect it,” she said. “Replace the roof if it’s not Class A.”

To protect the roof edge, keep leaves and needles out of the gutters. Attic vents especially should be ember-resistant, she said.

To learn more, visit http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Ready-Set-Go-Campaign/.

Reach Janis at janis.mara@sonomanews.com.