It’s nearly summer, and that means hitting the lake, school vacations and in California…. fire season. In Magalia, Cal Fire inspectors Steve Clement and Susan Beeler are driving around, going door to door to make sure everyone is prepared.
This team alone will check thousands of houses across the North State assure that each home has enough “defensible space.” In other words, a 30-foot radius around the house free of any fire hazards. They also look for reflective address labels, so that crews can find the house easily in case of emergency.
And this safe zone isn’t a mere suggestion. If you live in one of the state’s at-risk areas, you can be ticketed for not having a defensible space around your house. Cal Fire has a map of these zones on their website. In Northern California, most towns higher than the valley floor are included.
“We give them two weeks and then we come back and check it,” Beeler says. “If they’re not getting it done on the the third inspection they could be cited and it could be a $100 ticket.”
“It’s basically like a fix-it ticket,” Clement adds.
As we drive by one house, Beeler notices the yard is overgrown with dry shrubs.
“So is that a write up?” I ask.
“Yes, that’s a write up,” Beeler says. “This one’s for the roof and then plants, trees and shrubs. And she also didn’t have her address on there. So all three of those things will have to be done by June 23.”
Some other things you can be written up for: dead trees, any trash sitting in the yard and storing firewood within 30 feet of your house
“What’s one of those things that you see where you just go, ‘Oh no…’” I ask.
“The roof! The roof!” they say unanimously.
“Because if an ember lands there, it’s going to start the house on fire, and it’s something that will smolder for a couple of hours and we won’t see it,” Beeler explains.
While Cal Fire inspectors may forgive overgrown grass, they won’t overlook an unkempt roof. And there’s no set criteria for what’s acceptable either, it’s based on their personal judgement. But if it’s more than a few handfuls of dead leaves, they say you can get a write up.
As frustrating as it is to keep on top of yard work, these few small things, really do make a difference. Both inspectors have seen it save homes — in Susan’s case, her own.
“We literally we’re running down our driveway,” she says. “We picked up all our animals and our goats and met the fire department coming up the hill. You may not get a warning sign. They were able to protect our home because we had a defensible space. If I didn’t do what I was supposed to do it definitely would have taken out the house.”
“You can see a fire burn through and all of a suddenly there’s a house and it’s totally untouched, and that makes it easier for us to come in and put it out,” Clement says. “Not only is it the best way for us to do it, it’s the safest, people’s lives are at stake.”
Most people Cal Fire talks to during inspections understand this. At this time of year, the fines aren’t what they’re worried about.
Rebecca Oliver and her husband, Lee, who live in Magalia, pass the inspection with flying colors, despite being new to the area. Rebecca also keeps maps pinned to the wall. She has an evacuation plan with routes out of the neighborhood. Considering all the torrential rains this winter, I ask her if she’s less nervous this year or more so.
“I wouldn’t say less nervous — just cautious, as to the possibilities, because things dry out,” she said.
Because the grass is overgrown this year, due to all the rain, the U.S. Forest Service predicts that fires will be more active than they were last year, .but only in the valley areas of Northern California. In other regions, the outlook is near average. The height of the season is expected to hit later in the summer, around August, once all the new growth dries out.
But Rebecca’s husband, Lee, doesn’t much care for predictions. He says their family is going to be prepared either way.
“It’s the same thing every year,” he says. “You know what’s possible and if you’re not ready for it then shame on you. I know better, so if I don’t act it’s my fault.”
Being ready doesn’t take much either. Just spending a little time mowing the lawn and clearing the roof each week can be enough to save your home.