Sonoma County better prepared for fires in the Wildlands Urban Interface
On Mark West Springs Road, just past the Mark West Springs Lodge sign, you will find the intersection of Porter Creek Road and Leslie Road. As you stop, you’ll see the overgrowth of oak trees braiding among the spitting cords of a dilapidated power pole. You will see the dead grass covering the meadows behind the chipped white picket fences. And you’ll notice the dried fuel running up and down the tight curves of the Mark Springs corridor hugging you on the east and west sides.
It’s a spot right in the middle of the Tubbs Fire scar, and according to Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine, it looks like it’s still ablaze.
“It’s a hot spot for sure,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said Friday morning. “There is dead fuel everywhere. He wouldn’t carry like the Tubbs, but he would carry.
The intersection is an indicator of vegetation in Sonoma County at this time. There is dead fuel, and lots of it. However, despite these hotspots, Sonoma County, which saw the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires spread through this very region, has since invested millions in fire awareness, prevention and preparedness.
“We’re so much more proactive now than before,” Heine said.
Proactive preparation comes at all levels, Heine said. through a level of collaboration between fire departments, local and state governments, and the community that has never been seen before.
“The collaboration we’ve seen has been the biggest change next to being exceptionally proactive,” Heine said.
Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins agreed. In particular, she cited collaboration and voter interest as a key element in establishing a major wildland urban interface fire prevention network in the county, known as WUI (pronounced woo-ee), in abbreviated.
WUI is a state-established designation for land in which the housing density is greater than 6.17 houses per square kilometer with more than 50% vegetation cover. In California, 11.2 million people – 1/4 of them – live in the WUI, comprising 450 million homes. Here in Sonoma County, one-third of all homes are in WUI, but the geographic area covers most of the county.
“We have so much in the WUI,” Hopkins said. “It’s so vast and there’s so much open space.”
Much of WUI’s land is under conservation, thanks to organizations such as Pepperwood Preserve, Sonoma County Ag & Open Space, and Sonoma County Regional Parks. But, as Hopkins points out, much of the WUI is highly patchy, which poses unique challenges for fire prevention.
This is one of the reasons why there are intersections like Heine’s hotspot on Porter Creek Road.
“We can’t just snap our fingers and implement a strategy on tens of thousands of acres of land,” Hopkins said. “You have to meet the challenge of a diversity of owners with different interests and means. In the end, you’re only as safe as your neighbor and if your neighbor doesn’t do the same, how do you hold them accountable without taking a punitive approach? »
Community-led fire prevention
The county thinks it has an answer with SoCoAdapts. As Sonoma County Fire Inspector Caerleon Stafford explains, it’s a carrot rather than a stick approach to fire prevention in the WUI. Within SoCoAdapts, the county has identified about a dozen project areas where county inspectors will work with homeowners to focus on defensive space and home reinforcement. To help homeowners get the job done, the county can provide up to $10,700 in cost-share incentives to complete high-priority risk reduction projects.
“It’s the future,” Stafford said. “That’s where we’re going.”
SoCoAdapts is a project that mirrors the county’s CWPP, or community wildfire protection plan. The CWPP — which is essentially a priority list of projects proposed by the community to protect it from wildfires — allows the county to direct grant funding to projects that are essentially plug-and-play.
“These projects have been reviewed and many of them are ready to go,” Hopkins said. “They just need funding.”
Many communities have already benefited from the CWPP process and funding, whether a boon from PG&E or the federal government. Rio Nido, Guernewood and Occidental – the communities located in the heavily forested fifth district of Hopkins – have each improved their areas with projects such as removing invasive species and creating a fire buffer or area soothing.
Community efforts for the surrounding lands are only part of the puzzle, Stafford and Heine point out.