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

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

Property owners in areas of Santa Rosa with high wildfire risk must soon take bigger steps to create barriers around their properties, trim overhanging trees and remove other flammable debris to slow or stop the spread of fires.

The new law 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 portion of Oakmont.

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

Past fires and climate change have changed the environment in the city’s eastern hills and surrounding forested areas, requiring more work to reduce risks, Santa Rosa Fire Chief and Fire Chief Paul Lowenthal said.

Fire officials are looking for a way to better manage fuel and brush loads, and Lowenthal said the ordinance will give the department a tool to address issues related to primarily private property.

“The goal is to prevent what has happened many times now, mitigate the risks and make our community safer,” Lowenthal said in an interview. “This has the potential to make some really important 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 official vote scheduled for Dec. 12.

The law would also require property owners to remove dead trees and invasive plants such as Scotch broom, a highly flammable shrub that has long been a concern in Fountaingrove and other burned areas.

These requirements will be implemented gradually until mid-2025.

What is required under the new rules?

Although the October 2017 wildfires spurred residents to take greater action to address fire risks surrounding their properties, state law only requires property owners in areas designated by Cal Fire as high-risk areas to comply with defensible space standards.

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

The new rules require a wide range of landlords to:

-Remove all dead plants, weeds and weeds around accessory buildings within 100 feet of the building and around all accessory structures and roofs.

Trim trees at least 10 feet from the chimney opening.

– Keep trees, shrubs and other brush adjacent to or overhanging any structure free of dead limbs or combustible materials such as vines or loose paper bark.

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

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

In addition to the new home hardening requirements, trees that are dead or dying due to fire damage, Scotch broom and other non-native hazardous plants as determined by the fire department must be removed when they are within 30 feet of a public right-of-way, and 100 feet of a public road. Structure or 30 feet from property line.

Trees that pose a fall hazard near the right-of-way due to height and slope should also be cut down.

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

Property owners will have until January 1, 2025 to remove trees and plants and until July 1, 2025 to remove mulch.

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

While many residents have taken action to strengthen their homes, that requires buy-in from the entire community to more appropriately address risks, Lowenthal said.

“That doesn’t mean fires won’t happen, but we can do things to reduce those impacts,” he said.

The Fire Department will conduct inspections of the property, and violations could result in a ticket or misdemeanor, though Lowenthal said the department’s goal is to educate residents first.

He said the city received a $500,000 grant to help manage the vegetation and the department plans to use part of the money to talk to residents about what is needed and where rules will be enforced.

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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