At their recent Community Meeting on Monday, March 25, 2019, the Mill Valley City Council and Fire Officials presented to an audience of over 350 community members the proposed Vegetation Management Ordinance, which would require eliminating most vegetation within 3 feet of homes/buildings in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), as well as an update on recent fire prevention and preparedness activities, evacuation plans, and emergency communications.
“As a City, our number one job is public safety, and wildfires are our biggest challenge right now,” Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said. “We have seen drastic changes in the numbers of catastrophic fires in our region. It brings home the message that we live in a different time, and this calls for new, enhanced levels of action.”
“Fire safety is the top priority of the City Council, City Manager, and Public Safety staff,” she continued. “and we will continue working with our neighbors and local agency partners on important fire safety steps. But we cannot do it without you. It is going to take all of us working together to address fire safety issues and to keep our community safe.”
Changing Fire Conditions and How Fire Moves
After the Mayor’s opening remarks, Deputy Chief Mark Brown of the Marin County Fire Department discussed changing fire conditions. He shared some sobering data from the 2018 wildfire season, which tallied 8,000 wildfires with over 2,800 square miles burned, over 100 fatalities, and approximately 17,000 homes and 700 businesses destroyed.
He shared that nine of California’s 20 most destructive fires have burned since 2015, and five of those fires were within 80 miles of Mill Valley. Cal Fire has analyzed building development, fire behavior and fuels over a 30-50-year period and assessed the risk of Bay Area communities: Mill Valley ranks in the highest category of fire risk.
Mike St. John, Program Administrator with the Mill Valley Fire Department then discussed the mechanics of fire, highlighting the role of embers in creating new fire starts. He shared that these small sparks traveling with the wind can land on your roof often fall adjacent to your home. On average, embers ignite two out of three homes in a wildfire.
“Embers can travel a quarter mile ahead of the main fire front,” St. John said. “There could potentially be hundreds or thousands of embers falling on your house, and it only takes one spark to get into your home – through open windows, eaves, attics, gutters – and then your house is on fire.”
Proposed Ordinance, Education and Enforcement
Fire Chief Tom Welch focused on our local conditions here in Mill Valley, which include wind, thick vegetation, and slope - all of which contribute to higher risk to our structures. He shared the map of Mill Valley’s Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) - areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire.
“A lot of times residents say ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about the risk of fire’ – well I am here to tell you we can do something and we need to do something about it,” Chief Welch said. He shared how it is possible to create “survivable space” by “hardening” homes with fire-safe building features and by conducting thoughtful vegetation management. These two actions, he said, will improve the chance that a home will survive a wildland fire without firefighters present.
He discussed current regulations versus the new proposed regulations, which include clearing vegetation within the first 3’ around buildings, and removing specific vegetation 30’ from buildings and 10 feet along property lines and driveways.
Chief Welch shared a video that demonstrates how embers fly through the air and strike a building, falling to the foot of the wall, and if it lands on mulch or vegetation, a fire starts to engulf the home within seconds. The video demonstrates that wind-blown embers are the most significant danger your home will have to resist in a wildland fire.
“Your home will have its best chance of surviving a wildfire if you address both vegetation and other combustible materials on your property,” he said. He pointed out that working together as a neighborhood to remove excessive vegetation is also a key factor in having a better chance of surviving a wildfire. He also discussed each of the four specific plants that are recommended for removal: Acacia, Bamboo, Juniper and Italian Cypress and explained why these were chosen as the top concerns for fire officials.
Todd Lando of FIREsafe Marin discussed the work of his organization and the Fire Resistant Plant List on their website www.firesafemarin.org.
“It is important for you to know that we are not looking for a landscape that is devoid of plants,” he said. “You can have a beautiful, lush, green landscape around your home even if you live in some of the high fire danger areas. You can replace the hedge of juniper or bamboo that separates you from your neighbors – you can replace it with a plant that will maintain the value of your home and your privacy. We will provide information on how to select a suitable plant that will provide a beautiful screen, hedge or whatever you are looking for.”
Mike St. John discussed the education and enforcement plan for the new ordinance, such as additional meetings, website and eNews posts, home mailings, fire safety videos, working with the gardening/landscaping community, and demonstration properties.
“We are going to do everything we can to help you be successful in making our community more fire resistant,” he said. The current plan is to conduct approximately 5,000 parcel inspections starting with the highest risk areas first. Noncompliance could lead to follow-up inspections and ultimately, a citation, fines, abatement actions and liens. Fire officials are working on developing a Vegetation Management Matching Grant program, a Master Contractors list, and offering additional Chipper Days.
The next segment of the presentation was focused on the six Fire Prevention Initiatives - programs and processes developed over the past year to ensure our lowest overall community risk possible.
“These six initiatives are our response to the question we keep asking ourselves after experiencing so many challenging fires in the past years – ‘How can we adapt as a community?’” Chief Welch said. For a more in-depth look at these initiatives, including a status update on each one, please click here.
Evacuation Plans and Communication
Police Chief Alan Piombo led the discussion on evacuations and stressed the need for everyone to know at least two routes and two modes away from the danger.
“Evacuation doesn’t just mean jumping in your car and driving as fast as you can as far as you can,” he said. “Sometimes circumstances aren’t going to permit that. Get to know your neighborhood – get to know the SLPs, the fire access roads, and think about other ways to get away from fire danger.”
He introduced the idea of “Community Refuge Areas” where residents could go to safety, wait for the danger to pass and listen for instructions from the authorities. He shared a new mailer that will be going out to residents with additional information regarding preparedness and evacuations.
Chief Piombo discussed communications methods such as the Emergency Alert System, Wireless Emergency Alerts, emergency sirens, Reverse 911, Nixle, and social media. He also shared that the City Council recently approved the purchase and installation of a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) system in Mill Valley, which will have the capacity to emit audible instructions to surrounding neighborhoods. The LRADs are scheduled to be installed in late-Spring/Summer.
“It is important to do your part,” he said, and recommended residents sign up for alerts, prepare their family for evacuations, and get to know their neighbors.
The meeting concluded with Questions and Answers with the Public Safety personnel and Mayor and City Manager. These questions and answers have been compiled and are available here.
On the heels of the Community Meeting, the City is working with Fire officials to develop and implement next steps in our fire prevention and preparedness activities. For the Vegetation Management Ordinance, the following will take place:
Mill Valley Fire Department, 1 Hamilton Drive, Mill Valley CA 94941
Non-Emergency Phone: (415) 389-4130
Emergency Phone: 911