[Marin County] Dick Spotswood [opinion]: A year after North Bay firestorm, is Marin County prepared?

Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report.

A rule of thumb is there’s a one-year window after a disaster to make changes to prevent the next big one. After that, time passes, people forget and the sense of urgency is lost.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 Tubbs Fire that devastated much of Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties and destroyed a good chunk of Santa Rosa.

I marked that event by touring wildlands in the Sleepy Hollow-Terra Linda Open Space Preserve in Supervisor Damon Connolly’s San Rafael-based 1st District and meeting with Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts.

My four-wheel-drive trip included Connolly, Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber, San Rafael Fire Chief Chris Gray and Marin County’s Open Space District’s Sarah Minnick. Like I saw on my excursions with Supervisor Katie Rice and Marin Municipal Water District staff and director Jack Gibson, it’s clear fire and land management professionals fully understand the risk Marin faces.

There’s no denying the fuel load on our open lands is similar to that of Sonoma and Napa. Nor can we ignore that climate change is making our weather similar to historically fire-prone parts of the state.

It was reassuring to see multiple ridgetops being managed to isolate fast-moving fires, preventing them from crossing to the other side. The effort, partially funded by Pacific Gas and Electric, creates defensible areas where potential fires can be attacked by ground forces and from the air. Brush was removed using goats, followed by manual laborers cutting lower tree limbs to keep flames out of tree canopies.

Some know-it-alls claim nothing can be done to stop a Sonoma-scale wildfire once it gets going. This is nonsensical. Small fires of 10 acres or less constitute 99 percent of wildland fires. The strategy is to prevent those fires from morphing into fatal firestorms.

Is Marin doing enough? Certainly not. The scope of what needs to be done to mitigate Marin’s fire risk is daunting. The Tubbs Fire was a wake-up call that we face the same risk as Sonoma County. As the Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s report says, the issue is “when, not if” a big fire hits.

Local government’s job one is public safety. That’s not just fire suppression – in which Marin excels – but fire prevention, where Marin lags. Vegetation management — clearing brush, thinning the forest — isn’t a one-shot deal. It needs to be a major annual component in every city, county and water district budget. If it isn’t, Marinites need to aggressively ask why not.

Everyone loves the idea of goats attacking flammable brush, smaller invasive plants and grasses. A 400-head goat herd costs $825 a day. Not bad. Depending on topography, they can cover three-quarters to two acres every 24 hours. The county spends $300,000 a year on goats, which will increase to $400,000 next year. Even if bumped to $1 million, we’d still have a huge unmet need.

Marin relies on California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) aerial tankers to assist in an emergency. Cal Fire fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are strategically situated around the state, the nearest base being at Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Airport, 10 flying minutes from Marin.

That seemed reassuring until Santa Rosa Councilman Tibbetts recounted that on the night of the Oct. 8, 2017 Tubbs Fire, no aerial tanker came to protect Santa Rosa for 48 hours after the event began. That’s a sure way for a big fire to get out of control. Cal Fire operates on a first call, first served basis and Santa Rosa didn’t call first. Windy, dry Oct. 8 saw eight massive fires pushing the department past its breaking point.

If a big fire hits Marin, we’d better pray there aren’t simultaneous disasters. If there are, we’re on our own.

October 27, 2018

Marin Independent Journal

By Dick Spotswood