NOVATO -- Saturday was recognized as national Wildfire Community Preparedness Day and fire officials in Marin County are using voter-approved funds to create a massive fire break designed to protect the city of Novato.
Ray Douglas showed off the new backyard he installed about two months ago at his Novato home. He removed two large maple trees hanging over the house and replaced them with flowering plants, winding walkways and a gazebo. It looks fire safe but the wooded hillside behind the house could pose a problem.
"Fire is always a consideration here," he said. "We've got bay trees and we've got oak trees."
Douglas, who once served as a volunteer fireman, said it helps that there isn't a lot of thick underbrush beneath them.
"If you've got heavy underbrush, then you're going to actually set your trees on fire," he said. "It's hard to get these trees to burn unless you've got a lot of junk under them."
That's the situation just up the street on Thunderbird Drive, where houses back up against heavily wooded open space. The land just behind this neighborhood is included in a giant fire-reduction project called the "Greater Novato Shaded Fuel Break," a 60-mile-long, 300-foot-wide fire buffer zone that will eventually ring the entire city of Novato. The trees will stay but, over the next five years, work crews will remove grass, bushes, fallen debris and low-lying branches to create a cleaner forest floor.
"All the landscape full of fuels that have accumulated over these many years of fire suppression can create a really intense fire behavior which can move embers up and into neighborhoods," said Anne Crealock, planning and program manager for the Marin Fire Prevention Authority.
During recent wildfires, officials learned that raging firestorms can be checked by removing the low-lying "ladder" fuels that send flames up into the tree canopy.
"In some places -- in the Sierras -- we saw fires go from 150-foot-tall flames to 7-foot-tall flames," said Crealock. "And so, it really can make a big difference in what firefighters can do."
Seventeen fire departments and local agencies have joined forces to create a regional fire prevention effort funded by an annual parcel tax approved by voters in 2020. The Novato fuel break is by far the largest one they've ever attempted. Work will begin this summer and, even after it is completed, there is funding to maintain it into the future.
Residents of Marin are putting their money where their mouths are and officials are using lessons learned to make sure that disaster preparedness isn't being left to blind luck.
That appeals to guys like Ray Douglas.
"I like the fact that it's proactive," he said. "I think that's a good thing. Finally, you know? We're talking about government. Somebody actually being proactive? Be still, my heart!"
For 100 years, we've done everything possible to keep fires from burning but that's resulted in a buildup of fuels on the ground. We now know that removing those fuels can mean the difference between a minor fire and a catastrophe.
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