In 2017, Sonoma County residents thought they’d seen the worst a wildfire season could offer. But after three more years of destructive wildfires, fire officials and residents are working together to prepare for what could be another devastating season.

Civilian groups like Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) Northern Sonoma County, are working to organize themselves ahead of potential wildfires in their area, collaborating with fire departments, local government and nonprofit agencies and PG&E.

Val Swisher, who has lived on Franz Valley Road in northeastern Sonoma County since 2012, is the leader of a 120-member COPE chapter in the area. For the past two years, she and other leaders have been working to rally neighbors to the cause of preparing for wildfires coming into their valley — as they did in 2017.

In the event of a natural disaster, emergency services will likely be unable to respond to all calls, especially in outlying areas. Swisher said it could take up to 20 minutes for fire trucks to respond to a call in their mountain homes, underscoring the importance of individual and community preparedness.

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Sean Guyot, 25, another member of the Fuels Crew, is seen here pruning tree limbs to reduce fuel capacity, should the trees ignite. Much of the work of the Fuels Crew is removing “ladder fuels” — that is, combustible plants that have the potential to cause trees to ignite. Many California tree species have evolved to withstand wildfires, and can do more easily if terrestrial flora around them is removed. Keeping trees from igniting is a method of preventing high-intensity fires that spread embers.

“I think it’s really important for us to be united and in contact with one another because we are our own first responders,” Swisher said. “We’re at the very edge of Sonoma County and we’re more rural than other places. We used to feel somewhat neglected.”

Swisher said that although the large and sparsely-populated rural area formerly felt overlooked by the county, the recently consolidated Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District (NSCFPD) has been a boon to community engagement and public safety.

NSCFPD engages directly with COPE and other community groups to assist in wildfire preparation. And while emergency services may be unable to respond, through COPE organizational efforts, the three or four volunteer firefighters living in the area — or any other alert and prepared neighbor — may prove the difference between life and death for those living around them.

COPE leaders like Swisher work to compile information on residents living in their areas, identifying potential vulnerabilities and assets so that they can respond collectively to protect their homes — and each other — in the event of a wildfire disaster.

Under the direction of Swisher and other COPE leaders, neighbors have come to know who is around them, how to contact each other, who may need extra help and who may be able to provide it.

“Before we started as COPE leaders, there really wasn’t any organization like this,” Swisher said.

Now, Swisher manages a GroupMe communication list to keep people in contact, though she knows, should cell service go down, neighbors may be required to knock on doors to alert one another to danger.

Neighbors also work to alert potential guests staying at Airbnbs in the area to the importance of red flag days by collectively raising red flags outside their properties when the winds and temperature pick up. Other efforts include promoting property maintenance to ensure defensible space around homes — a strategy that could not only save homes but also slow the spread of wildfire.

Recently, COPE was one of the recipients of a $230,000 grant for vegetation management projects, alongside Fire Safe Sonoma and the Bennett Ridge Fire Safety Organization as part of Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) Community Wildfire Safety Program.

According to a press release, PG&E has doled out $17 million in grant funding to what are called Fire Safe Councils (FSCs). FSCs, of which COPE is one, are community organizations working to improve fire safety in their communities, under the umbrella of the statewide California Fire Safe Council.

COPE recently funded a vegetation clearing project along Franz Valley Road, currently underway, subcontracting with NSCFPD to clear brush and thin trees along either side of the road.

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Wildland operations like working on handlines. The Fuels Crew works closely with PG&E forest management workers, often going in after they clear areas of the forest to dispose of downed fuel sources in controlled burns.

Ongoing preparation for fire season

Marshall Turbeville, NSCFPD fire chief, said the Franz Valley Road project is one of many the department has been working on to prepare for this year’s fire season.

The district is also currently working on other vegetation management projects in north county, such as clearing Rockpile Road, funded through CalFire, and work on Fitch Mountain in partnership with the City of Healdsburg. Additionally, NSCFPD carries out prescribed burns to reduce fuel, burning over 110 acres this past week.

Turbeville said that, in addition to working together on vegetation management projects, working with community members has been a major emphasis in recent years.

“We can’t have people not knowing what to do when the fire happens. We’ve gotta have people helping each other, because there’s only so many firefighters out there,” Turbeville said. “When you need a firefighter or peace officer the most, we’re probably not going to be there. We’re trying to get the best information so people know how to respond in an emergency.”

Turbeville, who has been in the fire services since 1995 and also works full time with CalFire, said vegetation management, along with other measures, can help reduce the size and impact of wildfires.

It’s normal for about 5-10% of the California ecosystem to burn each year, Turbeville said, and by keeping fuel levels low naturally, historic, unperturbed wildfire cycles resulted in frequent but low-intensity burns. That changed when California public agencies began putting out wildfires in 1910, and, now, fuel levels are able to reach dangerous levels that result in uncontrollable and destructive wildfires.

Clearing vegetation, particularly small shrubs and dry grasses, and thinning trees helps to keep wildland fires terrestrial — that is, confined to the quick-burning grasses and other fuels at ground level and unable to catch trees on fire. When trees ignite, they burn intensely and can send embers long distances, starting additional fires. In areas with managed vegetation, fires will be easier to manage should they occur.

“My emphasis is much more on what we can do before the next emergency,” Turbeville said. “What we do now for preparedness and prevention does a lot more than what we can do in an emergency response. Maybe people won’t even know about the next fire that happens out there because somebody can drive by and put it out with a canteen.”

Turbeville said Franz Valley Road was identified as a strategic site for vegetation management for a variety of reasons. For one thing, keeping the fire away from the road will allow for the transit of evacuating civilians and emergency services going away from or into fire territory, respectively.

Additionally, fire crews can use roads as fire breaks, creating a “shaded fuel break.” Shaded fuel breaks are created by clearing some trees to remove fuel sources, but keeping 50-percent of the canopy intact while clearing brush and thinning branches, allowing for shade to keep soil moist and grass greener longer. The shade also reduces the temperature of dry grass, making it harder to ignite.

Turbeville said that ever since the 2017 wildfires, local fire departments and communities have been focusing on ways to treat the land ahead of fires to aid in weathering disaster when it inevitably occurs. In fact, Turbeville said 60-75% of labor hours within NSCFPD have been relegated to fuel reduction (vegetation management) and other fire prevention strategies.

Other fire prevention methods include using heavy machinery to dig out thick sections of dirt in long “dozer lines,” which serve as firebreaks and areas from which firefighters can defend against spreading wildfire. Back burns can be set firebreaks such as these, burning fuel sources in the path of wildfires.

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Foreman Alexander Beorchia, 27, said his crew’s work was effective in keeping common wildfires tame, though he said they won’t stop “weather-driven fires” propelled by high winds and excessive heat. “I was expecting this year’s fire season to pop off a little more by now,” says Beorchia. “But I think it’s going to be a busy year.”

Finding funding

While Turbeville believes the state and regional response since the 2017 and subsequent wildfires is going in the right direction with fire prevention and community preparedness initiatives, funding, he says, is scant.

“We’re doing everything we can do. We lack funding — that’s the big limiting factor. There’s a lot more work to do,” he said.

Projects like the one underway on Franz Valley Road are part of a patchwork of grant-funded projects the district has been pursuing in conjunction with local and state organizations. While the departments at NSCFPD have been able to get PG&E grants — in addition to money from PG&E settlements — and from the state, he said applying for grants is a time consuming process.

He’s currently working on getting baseline funding from the county to fund employees who, in addition to working on grant acquisition, could serve as liaisons with community members or else conduct tasks like enforcing defensible space requirements through inspections.

Turbeville would also like to see funds to do work on private roads and lands to expand preparedness. He said although north county has seen some of the worst of the wildland fires, it has been neglected in terms of county funding because of its small population, with fire prevention funds going to protect larger population centers instead. 

While it makes sense to protect larger urban centers, Turbeville said, fires often start and grow in the hills of his district. Stopping them at the source could serve to protect the larger population centers as well as the residents in rural north county.

Turbeville said that even with citizen preparedness and collective fire prevention efforts, this drought-year’s extraordinarily dry conditions could invite another catastrophic wildfire season. What happens this summer and fall depends on how severe the wind gets on warmer days, and whether we get lucky with an early rainy season.

The fuel reduction crews have been working seven days a week while impacted communities prepare every way they can, and Turbeville says north county is more prepared than it has been in previous years.

Recalling the 2017 Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires, Turbeville said, “We hadn’t been slapped across the face yet. People just really weren’t aware. I felt helpless that night. We’ve gotta do a lot more before the fire.”

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The NSCFPD Fuels Crew has about 15-17 staff members at any given time, employed directly by the district. Crews work seven days a week to remove blackberry bushes, coyote brush, poison oak and French broom, among other flora, to prevent wildfires in the area from reaching a high intensity.

Staff Writer

Brandon McCapes got his start in journalism at SRJC, when he covered the North Bay Fires in 2017. Since then, he has covered Sonoma County for a variety of publications, specializing in local politics and business reporting.

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