With Fire Season Upon Us, Firefighters Set Up Weed Abatement Efforts

Posted: 5/18/2016

Mill Valley residents and property owners – particularly those living in areas adjacent to open space – will be seeing much more of Mill Valley Fire Department personnel in the coming weeks. Those visits won’t be of the flashing lights and sirens variety – in fact, they’re specifically designed to prevent them.

Fire season is upon us, and although Fire Chief Tom Welch acknowledges that drought conditions are slightly better than they have been in recent years because of the heavier winter and spring rain, we’re far from being out of the woods.

“The fact is that with four-plus years of drought conditions, we have an abundance of drought-stricken trees in Mill Valley that are in bad shape and are dying,” said Welch, who noted that aerial surveys from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) showed an estimated 29 million trees have died statewide as a result of the drought and effects of bark beetle infestation, a more than 800 percent increase since 2014. “That requires a heightened effort to identify those trees, remove them safely and target the fire fuels around them.”

To preemptively combat that problem, the City of Mill Valley deploys its longstanding multi-pronged Vegetation Management Program, which has a $300,000 budget that is entirely funded by the Municipal Service Tax (MST). The $195 per parcel tax was first approved by voters in 1987 and renewed in 1997 and in 2006. The MST, which also generates $900,000 annually for street maintenance and road repair, is set to expire in 2018.

For Mill Valley residents and property owners, there are immediate actions you can take to support the Mill Valley Fire Department’s efforts to reduce the vegetation that can serve as fuel to wildland fires and hasten their way into our neighborhoods. That starts with fire vegetation inspections to make sure you’re doing your part.

Under State law, homeowners are required to clear 10 feet of vegetation along both sides of their driveway and on their street frontage, and between 30 and 100 feet of removed or reduced brush around the house, depending on the type of vegetation, the direction the home faces and the severity of the slope on which it’s built.

Firefighters will disperse throughout Mill Valley neighborhoods in the coming weeks to do fire vegetation home inspections, with MVFD personnel visiting neighborhoods to make sure that, among other things, trees on your property are limbed up, grasses near your home are cut short and debris is cleared from your roof, gutters and eves.

The City uses an inspection formula that calculates a weed abatement score, giving homeowners a number to associate with the severity of the weed problem around their house. Though multiple violations can result in fines, Fire Chief Welch said most residents respond quickly to an inspection. 

Mill Valley Fire Department personnel will be out in full force through July, primarily focusing on homes built on hillsides and adjacent to heavily forested areas. “If you have to drive or walk up a hill from downtown Mill Valley to get to your home, you are our focus.”

In addition to drought-stricken trees, firefighters will also be on the lookout for plants that can kickstart a fire, such as Manzanita, Madrones and Chamise. Firefighters will also check to make sure your chimney is screened to catch fireplace embers and to ensure that your address is visible from the street.

The inspections serve as a good starting point for many property owners to understand vegetation management requirements, but the City offers myriad resources to help them do so, including:

  • Chipper Days, which provide residents the chance to give the dangerous fire fuels they’ve removed from their yards a date with the chipper machine (Click here for more info and to schedule a Chipper Day in your neighborhood).

  • Fire Breaks: Along Blithedale Ridge Fire Road and Old Railroad Grade Fire Road, a virtual ring of clearing is created around the city that would slow down a potentially devastating wildfire. City roads, fire roads, ridgetops and the canyon floor are also regularly cleared of fire fuels. Battalion Chief Scott Barnes, who runs the City’s Vegetation Management Program, says that 5,500 tons of dangerous fire fuel vegetation has been cleared in Mill Valley in the past decade, including 183 tons this year alone.

  • Education/outreach: For new residents and those who haven’t yet grasped the City’s vegetation management requirements, the City holds workshops and seminars covering the key components of vegetation management and defensible space. For example, residents are required to keep flammable fuels a minimum of 30 feet from the house, up to 100 feet or more on slopes.

  • Defensible Space Application: The City’s web-based application allows residents to calculate the necessary defensible space around a home. The application asks residents to click the type of vegetation they have within 30 feet and 100 feet of their home, as well as the direction the home faces and the severity of the slope on which it’s built. With that info, the application generates a score that correlates to how many feet of defensible space should be cleared around the home on each side, from 30 to 100 feet.

  • Demo Garden: The City’s educational efforts were bolstered in 2012 by the creation of an 1,100-square-foot garden designed to showcase defensible space-conscious landscaping. The garden, located near the Public safety Building at 1 Hamilton Drive, includes a number of fire-resistant and drought tolerant plants and features “islands” of plantings with space between them as well as the need for a 30-foot “clean and green zone” between the garden and the home.

  • Inspections: Driven by homeowner requests, neighbor complaints and patrols in the field, firefighters perform inspections of residents’ management of the vegetation around their home. The City uses a formula that generates a weed abatement “score,” giving homeowners a number to associate with the severity of the weed problem around their house. The formula grades the home on a variety of categories, including the grade of the slope, the size of the overgrown area and the type of overgrowth (grasses, bushes, etc.). Though multiple violations can result in fines, Welch said most residents respond quickly to an inspection.

Firewise Communities Program
While the City’s fire safety inspection program is quite effective in reducing fire fuels around town, the City’s deployment of the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program has also significantly moved the needle. The program provides accreditation to individual neighborhoods that reduce vegetation and create “defensible space” between homes and a possible wildland fire.

Four neighborhoods have garnered Firewise accreditation, including Blithedale Highlands, the Shelter Ridge Homeowners Association, Mill Valley Meadows and the Scott Valley Homeowners Association. In doing so, residents of those neighborhoods have been eligible to lower their insurance premiums, lessen the risk of being dropped by their insurance carriers and have the opportunity to land $50,000 grants for specific fire prevention projects. 

The program can directly reduce a community’s cost of reducing fire fuels. For instance, if three or more homes in an area plan to have vegetation reduced or removed from around their homes, the City can set up a Chipper Day, so residents can give the dangerous fire fuels they’ve removed from their yards a date with the chipper machine. 

The success of Firewise in Mill Valley has another significant benefit: When neighborhoods take an active role in the vegetation management around their homes and streets, it allows the department to be more strategic, and thus more efficient, when it allocates funding to do brush clearing.

Fire Chief Welch said that our community has been fortunate to go more than 85 years without a major wildfire. The last one was a 1929 blaze that torched 2,500 acres of Mt. Tam's southern slope and destroyed 117 homes in three days. Fire officials estimate the amount of fire fuel on the mountain has tripled from what it was in 1929, thus making the City’s MST-funded Vegetation Management Program an eminently critical one for every resident and business owner in town.

Click here for more info on the City’s Vegetation Management Program and for a full list of its services, and check out the video below for a better understanding of defensible space: