New home hardening, brush requirements for Santa Rosa properties in high-risk fire areas

Property owners in areas of Santa Rosa with heightened wildfire risks must soon take greater steps to create buffers around their properties, trim overhanging trees and clear other flammable debris to slow or stop the spread of fires.

The new ordinance would apply to all parcels within the city’s wildland urban interface — more than 9,000 properties across Fountaingrove, Skyhawk, Montecito, Bennett Valley and the southern part of Oakmont.

The initiative is the latest effort by fire officials to strengthen Santa Rosa’s defenses against devastating fires in the years since the October 2017 firestorm and it builds on the city’s weed abatement ordinance in effect during fire season that requires residents to trim weeds down to four feet.

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa fire division chief and fire marshal, said prior blazes and climate change have led to a changing ecology in the city’s eastern hillsides and surrounding wooded areas, requiring greater work to reduce hazards.

Fire officials have eyed a way to better manage fuel loads and brush and Lowenthal said the ordinance would give the department a tool to address issues primarily on private properties.

“The goal of this is to prevent what we’ve had happen now too many times, to mitigate the risk and make our community safer,” Lowenthal said in an interview. “This has the potential to really make some significant impacts and make our community safer and more resilient against future wildfires.”

The City Council approved the new rules on Dec. 5 and they will go into effect 30 days after a second formal vote scheduled for Dec. 12.

The ordinance also will require property owners to remove dead trees and invasive plants like Scotch broom, a highly flammable bush that has long been a concern in Fountaingrove and other burned areas.

Those requirements will be phased in through mid-2025.

This screenshot shows Santa Rosa’s Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area map. (City of Santa Rosa)
This screenshot shows Santa Rosa’s Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area map. (City of Santa Rosa)

What’s required under the new rules?

Though the October 2017 wildfires spurred greater action among residents to address fire hazards surrounding their properties, state law only requires property owners in areas designated by Cal Fire as very high fire hazard severity zones to comply with defensible space standards.

But those properties represent a small portion of all properties within the city’s entire wildland urban interface, Lowenthal said.

The new rules require a wider swath of property owners to:

-Remove all dead plants, grasses and weeds around outbuildings within 100 feet of a structure and from around all structures and attached decks.

-Trim trees back at least 10 feet from a chimney opening.

-Maintain trees, bushes and other brush adjacent to or overhanging any structure free of dead limbs or combustible material like vines or loose, papery bark.

-Prune branches of large trees up 10 feet from the ground and to about a third of the tree’s height for smaller trees.

The rules also apply to vacant, undeveloped land within 30 feet of the property line.

Beyond new home hardening requirements, trees that are dead or dying because of fire damage and Scotch broom and other nonnative hazardous vegetation as determined by the fire department must be removed when they’re within 30 feet of a public right of way, 100 feet of a structure or 30 feet of a property line.

Trees that present a fall hazard near a right of way because of the height and slope also must be cut down.

Fibrous or stringy mulch, commonly known as gorilla hair, which is flammable and presented a challenge for firefighters during the 2020 Glass Fire, or mulch that has been dyed with chemicals that could more easily spread fire is prohibited within 30 feet of a structure.

Property owners will have until Jan. 1, 2025, to remove the trees and vegetation and until July 1, 2025, to remove the mulch.

Requests for exemptions related to rare or endangered plant or animal species or in cases where removing plants or trees could threaten the slope stability of a property can be submitted to the city for review, according to the ordinance.

Lowenthal said while many residents have taken measures to harden their homes it requires buy-in from the full community to more adequately address risks.

“It’s not to say fires aren’t going to start, but we can be doing things to reduce those impacts,” he said.

The fire department will conduct property inspections, and violations could lead to an infraction or misdemeanor though Lowenthal said the department’s goal is to educate residents first.

The city received a $500,000 grant to assist with vegetation management and the department plans to use part of the funds to talk to residents about what is required and where the rules are applicable, he said.

Staff Writer Madison Smalstig contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

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