Your MST At Work: City's Ever-Improving Fire Prevention Program Maximizes Every Dollar

Posted: 4/21/2016

When Mill Valley Fire Department Battalion Chief Scott Barnes took over the City’s Vegetation Management Program six years ago, he sought to wrap his arms around a multi-faceted campaign designed for one critical purpose: to reduce the chance of a wildland fire sweeping through our community, particularly at this time year with fire season on the horizon. 

While the core of the program remains the same as the one Barnes inherited, he has dramatically enhanced it over the years – it now includes an app, a web video series, a demonstration garden and an accreditation program for neighborhoods – without ever increasing the program’s $300,000 budget, entirely funded by the Municipal Service Tax, which is up for renewal in 2016. 

How have Barnes and his colleagues at the Mill Valley Fire Department (MVFD) created such an extensive program to reduce the possibility of a wildfire in our community? With the help of volunteers, grant funding, public/private partnerships, City Council support, inter-department collaboration, plus empowerment and some peer pressure as well.

One of the successful outcomes of those effective ingredients is the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program, which provides accreditation to individual neighborhoods that reduce vegetation and create “defensible space” between homes and a possible wildland fire. 

With much of the heavy lifting done by Barnes and MVFD personnel, 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 apply for $50,000 grants for fire prevention projects. 

Not only does the City take on the burden of the application process, Barnes said, but it can also 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. Chipper Days give residents an opportunity to remove dangerous fire fuels from their yards and have those materials chipped and hauled away. 

Barnes has seen a snowball effect with Firewise, so when one neighborhood gets its accreditation and subsequent benefits, surrounding neighborhoods hear about it and want to do the same. 

“A little peer pressure and competition never hurts,” Barnes says. 

The success of Firewise in Mill Valley has significant benefits, according to Barnes: 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. It also allows neighborhoods to be more self-sufficient and better informed about fire protection.

Vegetation Management 
MVFD has long used a number of strategies to encourage residents to create and maintain so-called “defensible space” around their home – that is, between 30 and 100 feet of removed or reduced brush, depending on the type of vegetation, the direction the home faces and the severity of the slope on which it’s built. 

Those strategies include:

  • Fire safety home inspections - MVFD personnel will visit neighborhoods, making 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 produces a weed abatement score, giving homeowners a number to associate with the severity of the fire-prone vegetation around their house. Though multiple violations can result in fines, Fire Chief Tom Welch said most residents respond quickly to an inspection. 

    MVFD personnel will be out in full force to help from May to July, conducting inspections all over town with a specific focus on homes built in hillside areas 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, we will be focusing on your property,” Welch said. 

  • Chipper Days – This service provides 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 cleared space is created around the City to slow down a potentially devastating wildfire. City roads, fire roads, ridgetops and the canyon floor are also regularly cleared of fire fuels. Thousands of tons of dangerous fire fuel vegetation have been cleared in Mill Valley in the past decade.

  • Education and 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 App. The City’s web-based application allows residents to calculate the necessary defensible space around a home. The app 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 app calculates 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.

  • Demonstration Garden. The City’s educational efforts were bolstered in 2012 by the creation of a 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.

Fire Chief Welch advises residents to avoid planting vegetation that can kickstart a fire, such as Manzanita, Madrones and Chamise. “Larger drought-stricken fuels are ready to burn and grasses will be tinder-dry soon,” he said. “All wildland fire agencies are increasing staffing at seasonal fire stations early in anticipation of intense summer.” 

Mill Valley Fire officials say 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 Vegetation Management Program an eminently critical one for every resident and business owner in town. 

The City’s $300,000 Vegetation Management Program is entirely funded by the Municipal Service Tax. The $145 per parcel tax was first approved by voters in 1987 for 10 years, was renewed in 1997 and again in 2006 at a maximum of $195 per parcel. The MST generates $1.2 million in revenue annually. Along with the $300,000 budget for the Vegetation Management Program, the MST also funds $900,000 in street maintenance and road repair. The MST is up for renewal in 2016. 

Click here for more info on the City’s Vegetation Management Program and for a full list of its services. 

The City’s Vegetation Management Program has produced another major benefit for property owners: In 2015, MVFD attained a Public Protection Class 1 through the Insurance Services Office (ISO), an achievement that likely has a positive impact on the insurance premiums of property owners. 

ISO performed its first survey of the Mill Valley Fire Department in 1982, bestowing it a Class 3 out of 10. MVFD maintained a Class 3 rating after a 1997 survey, rising to a Class 2 in 2012. But in recent years, ISO incorporated fire prevention programs such as vegetation management, disaster preparedness, evacuation planning and building construction standards – areas on which Mill Valley has long been a regional leader – and that change immediately bumped MVFD to a Class 1. 

Barnes says he’s excited to see how far the City’s Vegetation Management Program has come over the years, but vows to continue to make the most of every dollar from the MST. “I’m just always look to improve and find ways to be more efficient with the funds we have,” Barnes says. “When I first took over this program, I was not familiar with the program that former MVFD Fire Chief Greg Moore had created. But by now we have mastered the program and we’ve made some great strides enhancing what former Fire Chief Moore built. We continue to be creative and smart about ways to stretch every dollar. It’s a challenging juggling act, for sure. But one which has provided huge practical benefits to homeowners and the community.” 

Watch this video about defensible space. 


If you are interested in any aspects of the information above, including establishing a Firewise Neighborhood, please contact Battalion Chief Scott Barnes at 415-389-4139 or