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County taking steps to prepare for ‘another catastrophic fire’

As Sonoma County tries to prevent its scorched landscape from contaminating local watersheds, government officials are exploring additional measures to help the environment withstand another major firestorm, including a possible expansion of controlled burns and rules requiring more landowners clear defensible space around their homes.

Crews are already installing gauges around the major burn zones from the October wildfires to monitor rainfall and stream levels, aiming to develop an early-warning system for conditions that might trigger flooding and landslides.

The effort is one of several underway to defend the county’s watersheds from exposure to fire debris, especially from runoff when it rains — although precipitation this winter remains only 60 percent of average.

During a workshop on natural resources recovery Tuesday, county supervisors welcomed an update on the watershed protection efforts.

But board members pushed for additional steps as county officials craft a long-term plan geared toward recovery from October’s wildfires and resilience when future disasters strike.

“We’re coming into a fire year — another one — with very low rain,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. “I’m just saying, we have to prepare for another catastrophic fire this year. We have to be ready for it … I am far more concerned about what’s in front of us than I am about catching up what we’ve been through.”

Gore said he’s ready for his district, which spans the county’s northern areas, to expand a vegetation-management ordinance the county launched as a pilot effort on Fitch Mountain outside Healdsburg and in the Mayacamas Mountains above Glen Ellen.

The ordinance requires residents to maintain around all structures a 30-foot space free of trees, brush and excess landscaping, among other mandates.

Gore cited the communities of Geyserville and Cloverdale as areas in his district that could benefit from an expansion of the rules.

Kerry Fugett, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, was supportive of the idea, describing it as a mechanism that could help decrease the amount of fuel available for fires — and encourage less destructive blazes when wildland areas do inevitably burn.

“The fires burned hotter and cooler in different areas, and that was due to a number of factors — you can’t just pinpoint one thing — but the fuel load is a factor in that,” Fugett said in an interview. “If it burns cooler, it’s actually going to recover just fine from the wildland perspective.”

The county has already has taken some major strides toward defending its watersheds and preventing landslides in the burn zones during winter rains. In the Sonoma Valley, about 82  percent of burned structures located within 100 feet of a creek have been secured with erosion control measures such as straw-filled wattles and sandbags, according to the Sonoma Ecology Center.

“One only has to look to Montecito to see what could have been,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, referring to the recent devastating mudslides in Santa Barbara County following Southern California’s massive wildfires.

Rabbitt noted the substantial geographic differences between the two areas but said Sonoma County could have experienced a similar disaster and defensive work already accomplished helped to reduce the risks.

The board proposed several more steps to protect watersheds from fire-related damage moving forward. Rabbitt suggested controlled burns in certain areas and questioned whether the county should adopt requirements for defensive space around homes that are tailored to certain geographic areas.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane raised concerns about homeowners with burned trees on their properties, asking county officials to help educate fire victims about their options, since some vegetation doesn’t need to be removed while some poses a risk if left standing.

Zane said she ha’s also heard concerning reports of debris removal workers dumping pool water from burned homes into culverts and streams. Zane said her office has forwarded those reports to county environmental health staff, and a Santa Rosa official said the city will send crews out to investigate if it receives such reports within its limits.

Supervisors also returned Tuesday to the subject of the county’s economic recovery. Ben Stone, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Board, said the county needed to build several thousand new housing units each year in order to ensure a smooth recovery.

Stone’s message echoed an idea floated during supervisors’ housing-focused meeting last week, when they considered the ambitious goal of building 30,000 housing units over the next five years. That total is equal to the existing housing in Petaluma and Sebastopol, combined, according to state figures.

Gore reiterated that the figure includes smaller living spaces such as granny units, and Rabbitt said it reflects a combination of what various general plans in the county have proposed.

But Zane urged supervisors not to make any apologies for the target.

“People have a right to live in the place where they work, and they have a right to affordable housing that is less than 50  percent of their paycheck,” Zane said. “I think we should be enthusiastic about that number, regardless of whether it’s a house or a rental unit or a granny unit.”

Supervisors’ next meeting, Feb. 27, will focus on infrastructure and examine the county’s use of emergency alerts, a charged topic given county officials’ decision not to use forced wireless alerts the night of the October firestorm.