Watch CBS News

Cal Fire discourages abatement work during dangerous fire conditions

Cal Fire arrests show seriousness of fire risk posed by some abatement work
Cal Fire arrests show seriousness of fire risk posed by some abatement work 03:49

Despite California seeing record high temperatures and off-the-charts fire conditions in the past week, there are still people trying to clear their property using gas-powered, household mowing equipment.  

Cal Fire is fed up and has begun arresting people who start fires while trying to be fire-safe.

On Saturday, Cal Fire investigators arrested a man for starting the 13-acre Pocket Fire near Geyserville. The cause of ignition wasn't a match or cigarette, but rather a riding lawn mower that the man was using to try to clear four-foot high grasses from his property.

"You have to be in tune with the conditions and what's happening," said PIO Jason Clay, with CalFire's Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.  "During a Red Flag Warning is not a time when you should be doing some of that outdoor work, that could potentially cause a wildfire."

The suspect was booked on one felony charge and three misdemeanors for sparking the blaze.  But just three days earlier, another man was arrested for helping start the Adams Fire in Lake County using a weed-eater.

"We encourage that defensible-space work. It's important and must be done," said Clay.  "But you've got do it in a safe and responsible manner, when the conditions are right."

Cal Fire says lawn mowers, like the one that started the Pocket Fire, are designed for green, manicured lawns, not dry grass or brush.  A fire could start from the hot exhaust, the metal blade hitting a rock, or just an accumulation of grass under the mowing deck getting too hot.

"Everything is very receptive to fire right now, and we want to get some information out there that will help keep people safe, so they're not doing something that could spark a wildfire," said Clay.

That message has been received by the guys at Brush Pros, a vegetation management company based in Oakland. On Monday, they were clearing a property in Orinda using electric pruners and string trimmers, with a fire extinguisher nearby in case a flying rock should cause a spark.  

Operations Director, Vlad Velichko, said it's simply not smart to be using gas-fired equipment around grasses that dry.

"Using other tools, like battery operated, you can now press a button and you have more control over when you're spinning it, when you're using it, when it stops when there's no debris around," he said.  "So, you have a greater advantage of stopping something that maybe a gas machine can cause a fire to spark and ignite."

George Peters, the company's sales manager, said, in addition to the fire risk, clearing brush on steep, hilly land like the Orinda property is hard work and full of hidden danger.

"I see a lot of 'homemade' kind of guys trying this stuff. What they're doing, they're maybe trying to do something good, but without being educated, they could possibly be creating a catastrophe," said Peters, looking up at the steep terrain. "I'm glad that I'm skilled. Look at that hill. How hard could it be? But I'd rather have the knowledge I have now to do that, then not.  Know what I mean?"

And Clay acknowleged that the two arrests are designed to send a strong message to the public.

"I does give people an idea, 'If I'm doing this work, maybe I need to rethink it and do it another way,'" he said. "The whole idea is to keep the community safe. And they need to know that we are out there enforcing the laws, and we do investigate all the causes of fires." 

A few months ago, the two men may have been let off with just a warning. But conditions are now so extreme that good intentions no longer outweigh foolish behavior.

Cal Fire says if people have questions about the safe ways to create a defensible space, there is information on the Ready For Wildfire website.   

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.