In fire forum, agencies stress fuel reduction

04/03/2019

Residents gathered last Wednesday night to hear updates on fire preparedness in West Marin from the National Park Service and the Marin County Fire Department. The overall message was one of reliance upon community: representatives spoke of a lack of manpower within their own agencies and a resulting need for inter-agency and community cooperation. 

“Seventy-five percent of the fire program is right here,” said Greg Jones, who oversees fire management for the park service at a number of parks in the North Bay, including Muir Woods National Monument and the Point Reyes National Seashore. 

“I have a seasonal assistant and that’s it,” he continued. “We hang our hat on cooperative relationships in Marin County. The border of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes—that’s a lot of private property, and obviously we have neither the resources nor time to treat all that.” 

The park service last July funneled $625,000 to the county fire department through a cooperative agreement that increased fire engine services in the seashore from one engine staffed five days a week to three engines staffed seven days a week. 

At Point Reyes, a fuel-reduction crew has worked to push back bishop pines 50 feet from either side of Limantour Road, hoping to maintain the road as a corridor for emergency equipment. 

Last year, a Marin County fire crew spent 30 days along the Inverness Ridge Trail clearing hazardous vegetation: an initiative started a few years back by a park service crew. Mr. Jones said more work will be done on the trail this
summer. 

Crews will also be burning piles of felled bishop pines on the west side of the ridge trail in the next two months, while the surrounding vegetation is still too damp to carry fire. 

Jordan Reeser, a fire management officer with the county, said prescribed burns are often unpopular in Marin due to air-quality concerns. 

“But if we get down to a meaningful vegetation management program in the county, it has to come down to prescribed fire,” he said. “Just cutting stuff and chipping it in remote areas isn’t an option. It can be a nuisance for people, and it’s never fun to breathe smoke, but we’re going to have to live with it. We’d rather live with it in short increments and controlled environments than when it’s more catastrophic.” 

From the state level down to the local level, fire agencies have been discussing revised vegetation management strategies and codes. Mr. Reeser mentioned—to much murmuring from the audience—possible recommendations to ban or prohibit pyrophyte plants like eucalyptus by 2020, though he was unsure if such a policy would be retroactive.  

“We’re really generally focused on trying to harden that first 30 to 100 feet around communities,” Mr. Reeser said. 

When Inverness resident Bob Johnston opined that defensible space on private property should be inspected, Mr. Reeser noted that the county did not have the manpower to regularly inspect and enforce code violations.

He added that the county has funding for seniors and low-income residents to help clear vegetation on their properties but said many Marin residents have sentimental attachment to their vegetation. 

“We hear pushback of ‘Oh, my grandfather planted that tree,’” Mr. Reeser said. 

Jairemarie Pomo, coordinator for the Inverness Disaster Council, encouraged residents to join the village’s volunteer core as liaisons for their neighborhood. 

A handful of attendees voiced concerns over the lack of direction from California State Parks; one resident called the agency the “weak link” in fire preparedness in the area. The response from speakers was that State Parks is slowly getting its act together.

“They’ve been at the table—they’re re-organizing themselves,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. “The most important thing you can do is reach out to Marc Levine and Mike McGuire and say that you think they need to put pressure on State Parks. A push from our community would be helpful.”