July/August 2008 issue

Summer 2008 issue

Next RBDA General Meeting
September 10th, 2008, 7:30 PM

Bonny Doon School Multipurpose Room
Ice Cream Grade & Pine Flat Road

Have a SAFE and Wonderful Summer!

Making Bonny Doon Fire Safe

Last month’s Martin fire was a grim and scary reminder of how vulnerable we are in this beautiful but sometimes dangerous area. This issue of The Highlander is devoted to information that hopefully can make us all safer and more able to cope if fire strikes again. Thanks to former Highlander Editor Jane Cavanaugh for researching and writing this.—Ed.

An Ounce of Prevention…

With the Martin fire still fresh in all our minds and rain still months away, many Bonny Doon residents want to take action like never before to reduce fuel load and become better prepared for future wildfires. As neighbors share their stories and best practices, excellent information is surfacing about fire prevention, evacuation procedures, and well-intentioned activities that have actually started wildfires.

The June 29 community meeting at the McDermott fire station brought together all agencies involved in our fire protection, including our own Bonny Doon Fire and Rescue (BDFR) team, all key Cal Fire representatives, and Supervisor Neal Coonerty. The meeting was an excellent source for accurate information about what to do (and not do) in the coming dry months, support options available to help residents better protect their property, ways to get better organized as a community around fire protection, and a chance for all of us to give loud applause in thanks for those who worked so hard on our behalf putting out the Martin fire. It was refreshing to hear first-person accounts of what actually happened before and during the early stages of the fire, without media misquotes and distortions, reported from “Moon Rocks Road” in the town of “Bonney Dune.”

Neighbors Joining Forces to Prevent Fire

Many neighborhoods are already organizing themselves to create defensible space not just around their homes but throughout their neighborhood. Creating neighborhood work teams gives you multiple advantages: you can share tool resources; you create much larger, connected defensible spaces enabling fire crews to protect the entire neighborhood, which greatly increases your chance of saving your own home; and there are several resources available to organized neighbors to help you with these efforts.

 A service available to groups of 20-plus neighbors is the BDFR team, generously donating more of their time to come through your neighborhood and evaluate its defensibility. If you and your neighbors have any questions about how to best prepare your area, contact BDFR board chair Tom Scully at 425-1432 to schedule a review.

Fire prevention is largely about creating fuel breaks that allow fire crews to safely get in (and out) of an area and prevent fire from continuously spreading. Fire officials at the McDermott station community meeting gave large credit for keeping the Martin fire to a “mere 500+ acres” to the fuel break created inside the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve two years ago, thanks to efforts of docent coordinator Val Haley, Cal Fire Vegetation Management Plan Coordinator Angela Petersen, the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp crews, and local Bonny Doon volunteers. Val and Angela spoke at the meeting about their plans to seek funding to create four more fuel breaks in the Eco Reserve, which still contains a large fuel load.

It’s important to understand what makes for a good fuel break, and what goes too far. Removing all vegetation around your house is not necessary and just sets you up for soil erosion problems later in the year. A 20-page publication entitled “Living With Fire in Santa Cruz County: A Guide for Homeowners” provides detailed information about how to best create defensible space.(ci.santa-cruz.ca.us/fd/ PDF/LivingwithFireinSantaCruzCounty_6-  2004.pdf)

In short, create a “shaded fuel break” that removes all lower tree limbs to a height of 16 feet. Remove dead and dry vegetation and break up continuous vegetation, keeping an eye on reducing “ladder fuels” that could allow flames to move up higher and higher into the canopy. Do this in a 100-foot circumference around your house and five to ten feet on either side of your driveway, for a total access width of 18 to 22 feet.

Two particularly volatile fuel sources prevalent in our area were discussed at the community meeting. Knobcone Pines, which can be seen for example along Empire Grade and above the Pineridge neighborhood, depend on fire for their life cycle (seed cones only open up and release seeds under the ideal conditions fire provides). French Broom becomes highly flammable once it blooms. Hand tools like the Weed Wrench (see weedwrench.com) are quick and easy ways to eliminate this invasive plant. Make sure to bag the plants, not chip, to avoid spreading more seeds. Supervisor Coonerty confirmed that the County has given permission and funding for manual spraying of French Broom along our roadsides.

What to do with everything you pull out? Normally bringing a truckload of green waste incurs a $12-15 minimum dump fee. Currently, the County Ben Lomond Transfer Station and Santa Cruz City landfill at Dimeo Lane are taking green waste at no charge from “the Martin fire area.” From personal experience, Ben Lomond Transfer Station has a list of addresses and parcel numbers from the immediate area around the Martin fire; if you’re not on the list you’ll still be charged. A resident at the community meeting reported that at Dimeo Lane it was enough to say you were from the Martin fire area. A request was made at the meeting to Supervisor Coonerty to look into temporarily waiving the green waste fee for all County residents; cheaper to take our green waste now to reduce fuel load then fight larger fires later in the fire season.

Cal Fire offers a community “chipper program” that allows neighbors to bring brush and limbs from their own property to a central location for free chipping and removal by conservation camp crews (see scottsvalleyfire.com/Other_PDF/ChipperProgram_1-2003.pdf). Creating a central chipping yard near the Bonny Doon Martin Road fire station was discussed at the meeting; having a coordinated plan to pull brush from multiple properties onto any shared road or driveway also works. Crews are not allowed to work on private drives or property.

Three of four conservation camp work crews are dispatched around the state for the remainder of fire season. One crew remains for local protection and is available for the chipper program. Contact Division Chief Steve Woodill, who oversees the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp for Cal Fire, for more information at 254-1704. Chief Woodill says that although we’re one of many communities across Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties with increased interest in this service, they would “love to fit in local work” for us as time permits.

Get More Involved in Prevention and Rescue

Wish you could have done more to help your neighbors and community? There are multiple opportunities to get training and help organize the community for increased fire safety, prevention, and rescue.

Cal Fire’s Angela Petersen suggested we create local Fire Safe Councils  (FSC) to coordinate community fire prevention activities ongoing. FSC is a state-wide organization with the mission to mobilize Californians to protect their homes, communities and environments from wildfire. They provide resources and funding information for local councils (see firesafecouncil.org/). Having our own FSCs would help us collect and act on all kinds of prevention ideas that can be done within neighborhoods by neighbors. Bulk purchases of water pumps to pull water from pools (which fire officials called “an important resource”) to mapping and marking local water sources such as pools, ponds, creeks and local fire hydrants is being coordinated by our local fire team. If you are interested in being part of a local FSC, or any fire prevention/preparation activity, Tom Scully is the best initial contact.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training is available locally through the fire team as well. CERT training is a national program designed to help citizens help themselves in widespread emergency situations when they are on their own before professional assistance arrives. The training is typically a 20-hour multi-week program, available for self-organized groups of 10-20 people. Ray Soler of Felton Fire, as well as Bonny Doon trained personnel, have offered to teach both the full program and/or just a partial-day introductory session focused on how to best prepare yourself. Check out feltonfire.com/cert.html and santacruzcountycert.org/ for more information.

BDFR is still actively looking for new volunteers. Check out their web site bonnydoonfire.com for more information and contact numbers. There is also a first-hand report of the initial hours of the Martin Fire in the words of our team members posted on the site.

There is a countywide Equine Evacuation Group formed ten years ago that periodically offers training if you are interested in learning how to help evacuate horses. This group also maps where horses and other animals are located so that they can volunteer assistance in emergencies. For more information and upcoming training dates, see equineevac.org.

Learning How to Evacuate

Those of us in the mandatory evacuation areas learned the hard way whether we had a good enough plan or not. Had you thought of what to take if you had 10 minutes, an hour, four hours? Having a list helps your mind focus during the adrenaline rush of evacuation. In addition to things that are special and irreplaceable, take papers that prove who you are and what you own. Consider having “go” boxes packed, ready to grab and go. Pack clothes, toiletries, and medications like you were leaving for a trip.

Take your pets with you. You may not get a chance for a return trip. Bring their beds, leashes, food dishes and a small amount of food. Best to collect them and contain them in crates or the car early in your process so they feel secure and don’t wander off. Cats in particular can make themselves impossible to extract or locate.

For horses and other livestock, have a plan for how and where you’ll evacuate. Don’t leave them confined or tied up. More than one story emerged from recent fires about horses and cows that were smart enough to find their own way to safety, and back home again at feeding time. Tagging your livestock somehow with your name and phone number helps you reunite should someone else come along and evacuate them for you. We heard of people spray painting their phone numbers on their horses, a creative last-minute solution.
Many neighbors and local friends are now exchanging information, phone numbers and keys with each other so that if someone is away at work or traveling, others are aware and can get into the home to rescue animals and important items.

If you store flammables in your garage or storage shed put clearly visible labels on the outside of the structure now, so fire know what they’re dealing with. Planning ahead is the key to being prepared.  Check with our team about the NFPA 704 labeling system that is understood by all firefighters as to the hazards of materials inside buildings.

Best Ways to Leave Your Home

Cal Fire provides a complete list of how to best leave your home in their “Evacuation Tips” fact sheet (see fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/Evacuation.pdf).

The following are highlights from this and the June 29 community meeting: Move any portable propane tanks at least 30 feet from structures. Close your garage door and don’t move flammables out of the garage or storage shed; this is where fire fighters expect them to be stored. Moving them to unusual spots may endanger fire fighters. Close all the windows and doors in your house. Open the drapes so radiant heat from outside can’t ignite them. Turn off propane at the tank, but don’t turn off pilot lights inside (this can cause a bubble of propane to become trapped in the lines). Consider leaving the doors unlocked; this allows fire fighters easier access for defending your home. If you have time, lean ladders against the house, place connected garden hoses and buckets full of water around the house, and clearly mark water sources on your property. Move any vehicles off the road or driveway that could impede fire team access. Crews can’t defend your house if they can’t easily and safely get in and out.

If you choose to remain on your property during an evacuation, it’s important to face your vehicle forward down your driveway, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Carry your car keys with you. Notify someone about your plan to stay. Plan ahead for the power to go out; PG&E shuts off power to protect you and fire crews. Shovels, blankets, buckets, and garden hoses are useful for small hand combat of hot spots that may form near your home. The pros say don’t waste water on your roof unless you’re unlucky or unwise enough to still have a wood shake roof. Know when it’s time to get out of the way and let professionals take over.

All it takes is a spark

While you are reducing fuel load, no doubt using chain saws, chippers, tractor mowers and the like, it’s important to know that you are also using equipment that could cause a wildfire. A CalFire fact sheet titled “Are you doing the right thing the wrong way?” outlines information anyone doing fire prevention clean up or even just standard yard work should know (see fire.ca.gov/~/EquipmentUse.pdf for full text).

Anything with an internal combustion engine (in general terms, an engine that runs from the combustion of fuel and an oxidizer, like air) has the risk of sparking a fire, particularly during the heat of day (after 10am), when humidity is below 30, and/or when the wind is blowing.

For example, as any seasoned concert goer will tell you, never park your car on dry grass and start it up in the heat of the day. Hot exhaust pipes and mufflers can start fires you can’t see until too late. Two local stories we heard: a woman in Zayante was using her chipper on a hot afternoon. She heard a “ting” as something flew past her ear. Moments later she turned around to find her yard on fire. The “ting” was a piece of metal, hot enough to ignite the dry grass, which burst into flames. In Bonny Doon, a man was using a tractor to mow dry grass in his meadow—he turned around to find the meadow on fire. With an internal combustion engine, even a blade striking a rock can be enough to spark a fire.

It should really go without saying: sparks and embers from campfires and charcoal bbqs or a chain dragging off the back of a vehicle; hot bullets from target practice; holiday sparklers and fireworks; flicking ash from whatever you smoke…all it will take this fire season is another spark. Please be extra careful.

Bonny Doon Eco Reserve Fire Aftermath

My husband and I have been volunteers in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve for 11 years.  Paul is a docent and clears trails, I collect garbage.  We know too well the careless revelers' constant activities—and the intense fire hazard in their playground.  And so, two years ago, we ardently supported the fire-fuel clearing process, initiated by the Rural Bonny Doon Association.

Angela Petersen of CalFire obtained a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to combat fire danger in the wildland/urban interface. Four agencies had to grant environmental approval:
•    U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS)
•    California Department of Fish & Game (DFG)
•    California Department of Forestry & Fire Prevention (Cal Fire)
•    Santa Cruz County Planning Department
       And one needed to schedule workers:
•    California Department of Corrections

To create her plan, Ms. Petersen held community meetings; she invited comments from environmental groups and individuals.  She incorporated the information she received, and modified the plan many times as more comments came in, or as one of the agencies sought a change.

This process took over two years, not only because of the frequent need to rework the plan, but also -- especially -- because of delays familiar to anyone who has dealt with overworked, underfunded government offices.  In fact, without strenuous support from the offices of Anna Eshoo, John Laird, and Mardi Wormhoudt, no clearing would have been possible.

Ultimately, quite a few parts of Ms. Petersen's original plan didn't happen:  some, because one or the other of the agencies objected; some, because time ran out for spending grant monies.

Against this background, I was concerned about Paul Rogers's Santa Cruz Sentinel article of 13 June.   
•    The Bonny Doon community was not split.  Residents enthusiastically supported the shaded fuel break.  Some, initially wary of convicts, were won over when they saw their hard work and excellent results.  Some might have been fearful of controlled burns, but none had survived the approval/time out process.
•    Invited comments from the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) and the Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity (SAND) were an essential part of the planning process, as the Reserve is home to several federally listed species.  Indeed, after the clearing project, Ms. Petersen came back with a crew and spent two days restoring habitat for one of them, the Ben Lomond wallflower.
•    Plans for road improvements were withdrawn, not because of environmental opposition, but because USFWS would not pay for this work.

Unfortunately, the article's repeated statements that environmentalists killed some critical aspects of the clearing, and that many Bonny Doon residents opposed it, create a division where there was none.  CNPS and SAND don't need to defend themselves when no one is finding fault.

But let's move forward.  How can we, as a community, find ways, suited to our steep slopes and sensitive habitat, to protect ourselves against the next fire?

Residential groups in Bonny Doon need to get together to discuss their preparations.  Staff from Cal Fire are ready to offer help with assessment and planning, and with such activities as clearing and chipping. With Cal Fire's assistance, a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) can be created which makes possible application for federal funds.

Clearing in the Reserve was, ultimately, held up because there was no Management Plan which, vitally, includes a plan for fire management.  Required by DFG, this document has yet to be completed by the overburdened DFG staff. The various constituencies interested in the Reserve—botanists, zoologists, geologists, hikers, schools, neighbors—need to make it their business to review the existing draft, offer suggestions, and push for its completion and adoption by DFG.

Once the Management Plan is approved, fire control measures can be implemented on a continuous basis—and it will also be possible to apply for grant funding. The hardworking crews from the Ben Lomond Camp cost only $200 per day, so a small dollar amount can produce a large result in the Reserve.

—Miriam Beames
Former RBDA Board officer

This is a slightly modified reprint of an Op-Ed of Miriam’s that appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.—Ed.

Thanks, Bonny Doon Fire Team, CalFire and the firefighters who saved our community!
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