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Mill Valley Fire Department Ramps Up Pre-Emptive Efforts to Fight Wildfires
Posted Date: 5/13/2014

While Marin received enough rain in February and March to push MMWD reservoirs to near-normal levels, Mill Valley is not immune to the impacts of the drought that his gripped much of California.

Because the vegetation that surrounds Mill Valley received just 66 percent of average rainfall, that vegetation – particularly plants that kickstart a fire like manzanita, madrones and chamise – is drier than normal. MVFD Battalion Chief Tom Welch said plants in the area are already as dry as they would be in late June or early July, according to “fuel moisture” evaluations conducted by Marin County Fire officials.

“We’re in the third year of a three-year drought cycle,” Welch said. “The fire fuels that surround us here in Mill Valley are drier than ever at this time of year, so we are stepping up our efforts to reduce those fire fuels.”

That means that the MVFD’s multi-faceted Vegetation Management Program, which has an annual budget of $300,000, is already in mid-fire season form. The program is all about reducing fire fuels, and includes the following major services, among others:

  • Chipper 2Chipper Days, which provide residents the chance to give the dangerous fire fuels they’ve removed from their yards a date with the chipper machine (Click here for more info and to schedule a Chipper Day in your neighborhood).

  • Fire Breaks. Along Blithedale Ridge Fire Road and Old Railroad Grade Fire Road, a virtual ring of clearing is created around the city that would slow down a potentially devastating wildfire. City roads, fire roads, ridgetops and the canyon floor are also regularly cleared of fire fuels. Battalion Chief Scott Barnes, who runs the City’s Vegetation Management Program, says that 5,500 tons of dangerous fire fuel vegetation has been cleared in Mill Valley in the past decade, including 183 tons this year alone.

  • Education/outreach. For new residents and those who haven’t yet grasped the City’s vegetation management requirements, the City holds workshops and seminars covering the key components of vegetation management and defensible space. For example, residents are required to keep flammable fuels a minimum of 30 feet from the house, up to 100 feet or more on slopes.

  • Defensible Space App on PhoneDefensible Space App. The City’s web-based application allows residents to calculate the necessary defensible space around a home. The app asks residents to click the type of vegetation they have within 30 feet and 100 feet of their home, as well as the direction the home faces and the severity of the slope on which it’s built. With that info, the app generates a score that correlates to how many feet of defensible space should be cleared around the home on each side, from 30 to 100 feet.

  • Demo Garden. The City’s educational efforts were bolstered in 2012 by the creation of an 1,100-square-foot garden designed to showcase defensible space-conscious landscaping. The garden, located near the Public safety Building at 1 Hamilton Drive, includes a number of fire-resistant and drought tolerant plants and features “islands” of plantings with space between them as well as the need for a 30-foot “clean and green zone” between the garden and the home.

  • Inspections. Driven by homeowner requests, neighbor complaints and patrols in the field, firefighters perform inspections of residents’ management of the vegetation around their home. The City uses a formula that generates a weed abatement “score,” giving homeowners a number to associate with the severity of the weed problem around their house. The formula grades the home on a variety of categories, including the grade of the slope, the size of the overgrown area and the type of overgrowth (grasses, bushes, etc.). Though multiple violations can result in fines, Welch said most residents respond quickly to an inspection. Request an inspection.

Fire Prevention Services Funded by the Municipal Services Tax

The City’s Vegetation Management Program, which had a $15,000 annual budget in 1996 and now costs the City $300,000 a year, is entirely funded by the City’s Municipal Services Tax. The $145 per parcel tax was first approved by voters in 1987 for 10 years, and was renewed in 1997 at $145 per parcel and 2006 at a maximum of $195 per parcel.
The MST generates $1.2 million in revenue annually. Along with the $300,000 budget for the Vegetation Management Program, the MST also funds $900,000 in street maintenance and road repair. The MST is up for renewal in 2016.

Click here for more info on the City’s Vegetation Management Program and for a full list of its services, and check out the video below for a better understanding of defensible space: