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Fire concern mounts over dry brush

With the warm weather continuing, North County Fire Protection District (NCFPD) authorities say they have been continuously asking Fallbrook area residents to clean up overgrown shrubbery, dry grasses, and trees.

According to NCFPD Fire Marshal Sid Morel, the deadline for compliance to the weed abatement mandate, which requires the removal of combustible plant matter within the recommended 30 to 50 feet away from a home, was July 1.

The abatement order comes from county recommendations regarding the lack of defined space and ignition-resistant construction.

“When we’re talking about defined space, people think that we are talking about a required clearing near the house that has to be earth only, and that is not the case,” said Morel. “Certain plants are more flammable than others, and certain trees need to be maintained a certain way. You can still have a beautifully landscaped home that is more resistant to fire.”

Newer homes are being built with components that withstand fire better. According to Morel, there have been several changes to the building code, requiring that windows have metal interlocking parts, and vents that have ember-resistance.

“These measures greatly improve the home, and we try to educate people with what gives a home a more fire-resistant quality, and help them determine their property’s vulnerability.”

The district makes a concerted effort to reach out to each homeowner in its district, informing them about the requirements of the weed abatement program.

“According to the best of our records, every property owner in our district received a letter regarding the abatement,” said Morel. “We go through our records, and though some people may say they never received a letter, we send one in April so that everyone knows what is required. Occupants know that it’s coming all year long, and they know they need to be in compliance.”

While a large majority of Fallbrook’s residents do comply with the abatement, there is a percentage that does not follow the guidelines set by the NCFPD. Concerned community members can notify the district if individuals in their neighborhood are not in compliance.

“The percentage [of complying properties] is better than people think it is,” said Morel. “Typically, we get complaints from people about a neighbor, and we have an individual, Gregg Holdridge, whose full-time job is weed abatement compliance.”

Morel believes that some residents of the community do not open the letter because they may be renters of a property, and do not open letters that are directed to their landlords.

“If [residents] are renting and they receive our letter addressed to someone else, they don’t open it,” said Morel. “Ultimately, it is the property owner’s duty to take care of the property, and people should update that information with us as necessary. However, there are many times when we are asked to re-send the letter, only to be given the same address as the one that we had originally mailed the letter to in the first place. People just don’t pay attention, especially when we have a mild year, like this one.”

This makes the process of compliance much more difficult for the district.

“It’s a little disheartening when people haven’t complied with what we know about fire safety,” said Morel. “A large reason for this lack of compliance is the economy, or the fact that elderly people are not physically able to do the job. Other times, people are just trying to hang onto the house, causing more of a problem for us because people do not have the financial support to comply.”

If a residence is not in compliance, NCFPD recommends that concerned neighbors offer to help with the cleanup of the property. However, if the property owner does not allow for his neighbors to help, a complaint can be made with the district.

With a 100-square mile district, Morel said it could become time consuming for Holdridge to ensure compliance from every resident.

“When you have one guy working on the weeds, all he does for our weed abatement compliance is deal with complaints,” said Morel. “We do address every single complaint.”

The amount of complaints the district receives regarding non-complying properties is about the same every year, said Morel.

“After a big fire, such as the Rice Fire, or there is a fire somewhere nearby, causing residents to see and smell smoke, we receive more complaints of overgrown weeds and plants,” said Morel. “On the whole, over the past decade though, we have received about the same amount of complaints [each year].”

However, because some residents are not well educated on what weed abatement compliance requires, Morel said a large portion of complaints are unfounded.

Lyn Dunning, a Fallbrook resident who lives near Alvarado St., has been particularly concerned with trees in her neighborhood that she feels are out of compliance. Dunning felt that there should be something done with the trees, and after having her offer to help clean the trees refused, she approached the district. She also wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Village News.

“I find it tremendously disappointing that North County Fire sends out all of these notices that they need to do this, but are not willing to enforce them. It’s another dry year, and when we look out and see those trees, we just say to ourselves, ‘here we go again.’”

“One big complaint that we constantly receive and try to educate about is large trees,” said Morel. “People think every large eucalyptus, oak, palm or pin tree is a fire hazard that needs to be removed, but that is not the case. There is nothing in our compliance that says anything like that. They only have to be removed if they are dead; otherwise, it’s a maintenance issue.”

Trees must be limbed from the ground up a third of the tree, which is typically about three to six feet high, said Morel. Grass and weeds that are up to a foot tall may catch fire, and if the branches are not limbed properly, a tree near the flames could also catch fire, as flames from the grass and weeds could reach up to two to three feet in height.

The district does take issue with pine needles and tree debris that gets caught in house rain gutters, said Morel, as one spark could land on the debris and start a fire.

“People get upset at the trees, but I could show you places where oak and eucalyptus trees knocked embers down, preventing the fire from spreading during the Rice Fire,” said Morel. “People also believe that if the fronds are removed from the tree, it is fire secured. However, we know now that they also need to be skinned.”

“The district tries to gain compliance through education and assistance,” said Morel.

In addition, the district uses grant money to provide assistance to residents who could not afford to comply.

“We used to have a grant that really helped with that from the FireSafe Council, but we no longer have any of that money, and grant money is harder to get [now],” said Morel.

According to Dorothy Roth, facilitator for the FireSafe Council, several grants have recently been obtained to help with vegetation abatement in the Fallbrook area.

“We have just obtained a grant for $71,000, and we will work with the fire protection district to see where we will have the most effect with vegetation abatement. We don’t want to do it in an area where it will only help one property; we want to help as many people and properties as possible. We want to well utilize our dollars.”

Fallbrook residents need to be aware of the importance to constantly abate any vegetation on their properties, and that it is not a “one-shot deal,” said Roth.

“That is the nature of the beast of Southern California,” said Roth. “We try to help the community so that they can continue to maintain their properties. For example, we used a large portion of our grant last year to clear up a lot of the leftover destruction from the Rice Fire, making the community safer and enhancing it. However, property owners need to continue to maintain it. We got the big mess done, so it needs to be done again before it grows too big.”

Roth, who lost her home in Fallbrook’s 2002 Gavilan fire, helped found the FireSafe Council to obtain grant money for studies, education and vegetation abatement for the community.

“Our council’s motto is: ‘Fallbrook is not fireproof; let’s make it fire safe,’” said Roth.

When a property is not in compliance, the fire district initially tries to gain compliance by visiting the property. The process of fining non-complying owners is not as simple as it may seem, said Morel.

“If the subject property is owned by an out-of-town property owner, we send them a notice, giving them 30 days to contact us. If they do not contact us, we send a legal notice stating that we are going to pursue legal action against them,” said Morel. “We have to give them time parameters so that they can call us. Neighbors think that if they call us, we can go to the non-complying property tomorrow and charge the individuals a fine; but we have to follow the procedures of legal notification, allowing time for compliance and response. We typically take about 90 days before we can force the abatement.”

Still, Dunning was hoping for a faster response from the district.

“We were disappointed after speaking to the fire officials, we thought they would have taken a better stand,” said Dunning. “For the most part, we see people trimming up their areas, but when personal properties get out of hand, it is disturbing.”

NCFPD tries to work with community residents and provide as much assistance as they can, but if the property’s overgrown plants become a life-threatening issue the district has no choice but to force abatement of the property.

“When a property is force-abated, the charges for the cleanup go onto a property lien,” said Morel. “There are also administration fees and everything else, such as our fees for monitoring the progress, added to that. We educate those who may have the means to clean up their property and those that are just not complying. We try to explain about the excessive fees associated with the cleanup if we are forced to do it.”

The additional fees usually range between $500 and $1,000, depending on the size of the property and how many hours the fire district has had to put into monitoring it.

“The county also has the ability to charge more to get the tax lien removed as well,” said Morel. “It’s always best to take care of the cleanup without having to go to that extent.”

Patty Campbell, a longtime resident of Fallbrook and former member of the FireSafe council who lives near Santa Margarita Rd., is particularly concerned with abandoned homes in her neighborhood.

“In our area we have abandoned houses that have all kinds of brush and weeds surrounding them. Two of them have very dry weeds because they have been abandoned for over two years. The problem started before [the homeowners] moved out. They started to neglect the property and turned the water off two years ago to a five-acre avocado grove,” said Campbell. “It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Destruction to this part of Fallbrook was severe as a result of the Gavilan fire, with only one home, besides Campbell’s, standing after the blaze.

“We are concerned because of the height of the dead brush on both sides of the road and all the way down the hill to the river, and we are very concerned if the fire comes up the river that it will sweep up the hill and burn on both sides of the road and the fire department will be very reluctant to come down the road to help those of us at the end of the road,” said Campbell. “Those of us who lived through previous fires and lost houses are aware of how greedily fires can gobble up neglected hillsides and threaten homes and lives. This is not just our problem, but all of Fallbrook’s problem.”

According to Morel, bank-owned properties have become a concern for the district because there are more and more of them, but Morel has found that banks are more willing to address the issue of weed abatement.

“A lot of times the property is bad until the bank takes over,” said Morel. “The houses then have a sticker placed on them, notifying us that the bank owns it. The bank complies really quickly; when the property is transitioning from the owner to the bank, we have a hard time with obtaining information about the people we need to get a hold of. Once the bank owns the property, they get after [weed abatement compliance] right away.”

For those who are uncertain of whether or not their neighborhood is in compliance, Morel said his team would respond to any call or complaint regarding abatement.

“We answer every call, whether there is a hazard or not,” said Morel. “When people call us out, and we go to look at their property, make sure you are not merely complaining against a neighbor, because we will make suggestions on your property as well. Get educated on the system and maintenance issue.”

In order to become better educated on the weed abatement compliance, Morel recommends that residents pick up a 12-page brochure on home and property safety from the North County Fire Protection District main office. Residents can also schedule a consultation with Morel or his staff to see if their property is fire secure.

For more information on weed abatement compliance, call North County Fire Protection District at (760) 723-2005, go to the main office at 330 South Main Avenue, or visit the Fire Protection District’s website at http://www.ncfireprotectiondistrict.org.

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