USA — The head of California’s firefighting agency said Friday that fire prevention officials will begin more aggressive enforcement of a law requiring property owners to clear 100 feet of brush from around their homes.
Cal Fire Director Ruben Grijalva said many homeowners in suburbanizing fire-hazard severity zones expect firefighters to stand out in front of massive wildland blazes to save their houses.
Most property owners do not have similar expectations of emergency workers during tornados, Category 5 hurricanes or other calamities, Grijalva said.
“Getting in front of catastrophic fires will just get firefighters killed,” said Grijalva, a keynote speaker at the 78th annual Southern California Association of Foresters & Fire Wardens conference, which drew about 200 members.
Cal Fire, which has been contracted by Riverside County and several Inland cities for fire and emergency services, is responsible for protecting 31 million acres of California’s privately owned wildlands.
The 100-foot clearance rule replaced a previous requirement that homeowners maintain a 30-foot clearance.
It was one of the major policy changes to emerge from a blue-ribbon commission’s review of the 2003 firestorms that swept through Southern California and killed 23 people.
The fires of October 2007 killed 10 people, and Grijalva said the response to the latest fire siege was much more efficient than the response in 2003.
But many homes consumed by last year’s blazes lacked adequate brush clearance, he said.
The clearance rule was bolstered in January by stricter building codes requiring new homes in fire-severity zones to have roofs, vents, siding and decking that are more resistant to burning embers.
Cal Fire had been criticized for its lax enforcement of the clearance rules in a state where destructive wildland blazes have cost billions in damage in recent years.
Of the 117,000 properties inspected in 2005 and 2006, inspectors issued just 160 defensible-space citations.
Grijalva said last year the state fire marshal inspected 50,000 properties for defensible-space compliance, and he expects that number to at least double this year.
The state fire marshal also is training property insurers how to inspect properties to ensure they comply with the rules under an agreement between Cal Fire and State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Grijalva said.
Grijalva said local governments must develop better land-use planning and prevention guidelines.
His comments come as the Riverside County Board of Supervisors prepares to consider recommendations from a panel of planners and fire experts that could put restrictions on development in fire-prone areas.
The panel was formed after the deadly Esperanza Fire in 2006 claimed the lives of five U.S. Forest firefighters defending an unoccupied home in Riverside County.
Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said he expects the panel’s recommendations to go to the supervisors in mid-May.