Santa Cruz Homeowners Aren’t Protecting Homes from Fires

June 23, 2008

Owners of nearly 90 percent of the structures destroyed in last month’s wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains did not properly clear flammable brush from the property, state fire officials say.

California law requires property owners in forested areas to remove or reduce most vegetation within 100 feet of a building.

But a state report found that most of the 132 structures destroyed by the fire had “poor defensible space quality.” That figure includes 63 homes and 69 outbuildings destroyed in the mountains above Watsonville.

Fire officials say it’s likely that fewer homes would have been destroyed if homeowners had complied with a state requirement to remove grasses and trees near buildings.

“I would think that there would be less damage, but it’s tough to say,” said Kay Price, a battalion chief with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Bottom line is that homes that have defensible space stand a much better chance in a wildland fire than homes that don’t.”

Officials cite a number of reasons why homeowners don’t comply with the law, including the desire to keep their homes hidden and concerns about harming the natural landscape.

Earlier this year, Cal Fire mailed out 2,500 notices to residents in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties notifying them of the law, but officials acknowledge they only reached a small fraction of homeowners in the region because of staffing and time constraints.

“We do as much as we can, but it’s ultimately up to the individual homeowners,” said John Ferreira, the state Cal Fire unit chief who oversees firefighting efforts in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.

The Santa Cruz County Planning Department also estimates that at least half of the structures in the area were built illegally, which makes it harder to make sure residents are complying with fire safety laws.

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