Stricter fire abatement coming

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The Mountain Communities Fire Code Committee is meeting and moving forward on possible changes to Riverside County’s fire code ordinances. The committee met again on Oct. 14 to discuss two draft ordinances to address fuel abatement on the Hill.

Sue Nash, of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, drafted the proposed ordinances. She stressed that a principal objective was the recognition that the whole community is responsible for reducing the potential of fire threats. That responsibility includes the understanding that if one’s neighbor has a structure, for example a house, near another’s property, the responsibility for creating the needed defensible space may fall on both property owners.

“If a neighbor has a structure, you have to abate your property,” she said.

The intention of the proposed changes, which still need committee agreement before going to the Board of Supervisors, is to establish a procedure for abatement that Riverside County Fire or the Idyllwild Fire Department could enforce.

Essentially, the intense abatement requirements within 30 feet of structures and establishment of defensible space out to 100 feet would apply to all property owners within those circles.

If abatement is not completed, fire officials would have the authority to use a contractor to perform the necessary work and the costs would be imposed on the property owner by means of a tax lien.

Throughout much of the county, fire officials already have this authority except on the Hill.

“Since the Mountain Fire, public attitudes have changed. We’re terrified,” Nash told the group. “Everybody wants to do this. When it is presented to the community, we’ll say, ‘If you want to save your structure, don’t fight us.’ We’ll need all the enforcement effort to go after absentee property owners.”

Fire officials acknowledged that stronger enforcement is the key to effective abatement compliance.

“What doesn’t work now is the lack of enforcement,” said Brandon Smith, a county fire prevention investigator. He stressed that Riverside County Fire Department conducts thousands of successful inspections, but enforcement of compliance needs more staffing. “This ordinance will need increased staffing. I think that what we’re missing in enforcement.”

Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins, who established the committee following an Idyllwild Town Hall meeting in June, agreed. “We’ve done a lot of inspections, but we’ll need to define a framework for actions and the intricacies of finances, including inspection staff and abatement costs for contractors.”

The committee’s next step is to decide how broadly to spread the ordinance and how it will be enforced, Hawkins told them. “People need to have a safer mountaintop. You’ll be given as much protection as possible.”

Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz, also a member of the committee, concurred with Hawkins. “I think there is a real need for this. I’m supportive but have questions.”

He also raised the issue of the time and cost for additional inspection personnel and particularly the availability of funds to pay contractors until property owners can be assessed the cost and pay it.

Next steps include drafting a new ordinance covering parcels with structures in mountain communities only that is consistent with the current county code, with state law and with county amendments to the state fire code; and to meet with fire code enforcement people in San Bernardino County, who already have ordinances for their mountain communities, and inquire about enforcement techniques there, according to Nash.

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  1. My concern with abatement programs is very simple they do not work. Look at the last two years of wild land fires in Colorado, Arizona and California the communities that enforced and required abatement programs had no effect on entire neighborhoods and houses burning to the ground. That is correct you can have the best abatement program and still a wild land fire will come in and consume entire neighborhoods it might look nice and every one supports it but do the research look at the fire abatement programs they do not work. We are very fortunate on the Hill to have a 6-10 minute response time if your house catches on fire. Look at the last ten years of structure fires on the Hill and none of them spread and turned in to a raging wild land fire because our Fire Departments arrived and put the fires out. Yes we should have an escape plan ready for a wild land fire but there is not much we can do and abatement will not help

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