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Marin Fire Officials Prepare for Early Fire Season

SAN RAFAEL (KPIX) -- The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for the Bay Area from Saturday morning through 3 p.m. Sunday. The winds did not reach red flag status thanks to the moisture that's still in the vegetation but fire officials said that just a few more weeks of the warm, dry weather could signal the start of a pretty scary fire season.

Saturday morning, the expected high winds were still just a gentle breeze when Scott and Susan Sherman got some of their neighbors together for a wildfire safety chat at their Greenbrae home.

"We want our house to survive if there's a fire in the neighborhood," Mr. Sherman said. A professional landscape consultant, he says the change in climate has altered the way he does business.

"The whole way I look at designing a building's garden has changed," he said. "It's a radical change. I now have fire safety at the top of the list."

At the fire-safety gathering, Central Marin Fire battalion chief Todd Lando told the neighbors he was shocked last year when he saw the warm dry winds begin blowing in May.

"Really, seeing those conditions in the first week of April is unusual and it's ... a warning to us all," he said. "We really haven't seen any substantial rainfall since January and that's not normal. We should be just ending the peak of our rainy season right now and, in fact, we haven't had rain in four months."

Lando took a tour of Shermans' home which has become a model of fire prevention. Where it meets the house, a wood fence has been replaced with steel sheeting. The garden mulch ends five feet from the side of the structure, replaced by rocks and hoses are clearly marked for firefighters' use. Ceramic tiles have been laid against the foundation and all horizontal surfaces on the side fence, including knot holes, are covered in foil to resist embers.

Susan Sherman took on the defensible-space project after friends and colleagues lost their lives and homes in Northern California fires.

"I know these people personally and so it really, really struck home with me about how important it was," she said. "What can you do to prevent these things? And I'm always thinking, 'what if' and planning."

That "what if?" has become "how soon?" after five straight years of disastrous fires across the state. Marin has begun a massive fuels-reduction program using hand crews and herds of goats. CalFire is already hiring seasonal firefighters ... something they only used to do in the summer months.

"We're seeing these hotter temperatures sooner," said Cal Fire information officer Robert Foxworthy. "So then we're starting to transition into those summer months a little earlier. Given those conditions, we're also starting to up-staff a little bit sooner."

Wildfire used to be a possibility. Now it's a given and those who deal with it for a living say there is no time to waste in preparing for it.

"This is an indicator that our fire seasons are getting longer. They're starting earlier and extending later and we're seeing these potentially catastrophic conditions earlier," said Chief Lando. "I think, right now, we need to think of it as though we're entering fire season today."

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