Aug. 17—Despite historic wildfire risk, too many Marin residents are still failing to create defensible space around their homes by clearing away combustible materials, Marin County fire officials said.
"To date for this fire season, we've done about 25,000 evaluations, and our compliance rate is between 30% and 50%," which is below the state average, said Mark Brown, executive officer of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority.
"We're not satisfied at all," he said. "We need to get the number up. There is no doubt."
Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber said, "We know that noncompliance number is very high, and we're working for those folks to become compliant."
The authority is not issuing citations or fining people who fail to comply with defensible space requirements established by the state, despite a 2019 Marin County Civil Grand Jury report recommending it do so.
"We really haven't been going the citation route," Brown said. "We've been going the education route. It seems we get better compliance through that route rather than citing people."
Brown said one reason fewer homeowners in Marin are passing inspections than in other parts of the state is that Marin's inspectors "are looking at properties with a much more critical eye than some other jurisdictions."
Weber said, "Some of these compliance issues are relatively minor infractions."
Patricia Randolph, who served as the foreperson for the 2018-19 civil grand jury, said, "Yes, the 2018-19 grand jury report on wildfire preparedness does mention citations and enforcement, but we all hope citations and enforcement are not needed as education of the public increases."
Brown and Weber said that while the time and effort necessary to issue citations isn't justified by the results, that could change in the future.
"We set out with the goal of providing a lot of education and opportunities first," Weber said. "We're going to become more stringent over the next few years."
Brown said, "If we don't see an increase in the compliance rate, we may have to explore with our elected officials an ordinance that would allow citations."
Brown said local ordinances would have to be adopted to give fire agencies the authority to cite and fine Marin residents for failing to remove brush and other flammable materials from their properties. He said that would be true even in unincorporated areas of Marin County, despite a state law mandating the clearing of defensible space there.
The good news is that Marin County is doing more defensible inspections than ever before thanks to funding from Measure C. This local initiative approved by Marin voters in March 2020 levied a parcel tax to fund the newly created Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority and associated projects, including defensible space inspections.
Brown said the tax produced $19.7 million in revenue in its first year of collection, and $3.9 million went to pay for inspections.
"It has dramatically increased the number of inspections that have been done countywide," Brown said. "Prior to the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, most of the homes in Marin were not being evaluated."
There are now 54 inspectors on the job throughout Marin. Each member of the authority, which includes all of the municipalities in Marin except Tiburon and Belvedere, get to decide how to spend their share of the defensible space funding.
San Rafael and Novato operate their own separate inspections programs. Some Southern Marin municipalities are collaborating on inspections. Marin County is partnering with fire agencies in Ross Valley and West Marin; it collectively employs 25 of the inspectors.
Todd Lando, a Central Marin Fire Department battalion chief who is overseeing the inspections in West Marin and the Ross Valley, said there is a misconception that fire agencies in Marin lack uniformity when it comes to defensible space requirements. Lando said all of the fire agencies in Marin model their requirements on the same state fire code.
Lando said the fire agencies notify neighborhoods prior to inspections but not individual homeowners because that would take too much time. Inspections are free, so any request for payment from someone claiming to be an inspector — there have been reports of scams — should be reported to authorities.
Lando said the group of agencies he is working with are testing a computer app that allows them to take pictures of the violations they detect during their inspections. If homeowners aren't present during the evaluations, the inspectors record only pictures of what they can view from the street without entering the property.
Homeowners are later supplied with a computer code they can use to view the pictures online. Lando says this gives homeowners a much clearer idea of what problems exist on their property.
"We're really excited about this," he said. "We want to communicate better with the homeowners."
Weber said most homeowners want to comply with defensible space requirements, but for some cost is a barrier.
The Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority plans to launch a grant program next year to provide financial assistance to low-income homeowners to help them finance needed work. Some authority members are already providing grants; 20% of the revenue generated by Measure C goes to individual authority members to finance local mitigation programs.
Weber said the urgency for Marin residents to eliminate flammable materials from their properties is growing.
"We're about a month to a month-and-a-half ahead of where we typically are due to the drought," Weber said last week. "We just got our live fuel moisture readings off of Mount Tamalpais this week and we're at 60%, which is a critical threshold for us. When we hit that 60% number, fire will carry in the live fuels easily, and that is very problematic."
Weber said homeowners who do not comply with defensible space requirements face the possibility of having their fire insurance canceled by their insurer and having to purchase insurance at two or three times the cost from the California Fair Plan, an insurance pool created to make sure basic property insurance is available to people who can't get insurance through other carriers.
"What we're finding with these fires," Weber said, "is that homes with good defensible space around them are surviving and homes without that defensible space are being lost in these fires."
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