My Turn: Mandatory defensible space inspection program | SierraSun.com

My Turn: Mandatory defensible space inspection program

Duane Whitelaw
Special to the Sun

TAHOE CITY, Calif. and#8212; The North Tahoe Fire Protection District has been working with property owners for many years to improve community fire safety through defensible space programs. It is important to remember defensible space is the law (PRC 4291). The inspection program has historically focused on sending out educational materials, making presentations to homeowner and service groups and targeting school kids during fire prevention week.

The inspection program evolved in the mid-1990and#8217;s to show homeowners how to specifically correct fire hazards around their home by providing them with an inspection checklist. With many thousands of homes in the district though, homeowners could go years without a specific inspection report on their property.

Following the Angora and Washoe fires, the district asked property owners to support a fire assessment to aid our prevention and hazardous fuels reduction programs. Seeing first-hand the devastation a wildfire can cause, property owners doubled their efforts to clean up their yards. Our fire assessment funded dooryard chipping and pine needle drop off day programs burst at the seams with folks taking advantage of these services.

With so many property owner successes, the homes without defensible space really stand out. Untreated vacant lots and adjoining public lands also became the obvious target. After a property owner spends many hours and much money complying with this state law, it was difficult to justify why a neighbor was allowed to leave their property untreated. Our phones ring off the hook with complaints about a neighborand#8217;s property going untreated year after year.

After serious discussion, the fire district decided in 2009 to take the next step in our defensible space program to deal with homeowners unwilling to do any work at all. With the help of Calfire (the State Fire Department) we prioritized high risk neighborhoods and started the mandatory compliance program. Criteria we considered included terrain, emergency ingress and egress, water storage and flow, response times of first arriving units, etc.

In the fire season prior to the enforcement year in a given neighborhood we do educational inspections of the homes with a notice stating a mandatory inspection will occur the following year. Each of the first two seasons resulted in the highest percentage of compliance ever seem in our history. Out of hundreds initially referred to the District Attorneyand#8217;s office, only a few actually saw the judge. The goal is to eventually inspect all homes as weather and resources permit.

Despite the successes, relations with property owners (our customers) have suffered. People who routinely get their work done have been swept up into the enforcement effort. While any property showing progress is pulled from the court docket immediately, often times confusion and misunderstanding occurs. I sincerely apologize to anyone unfairly put in this category where work is actually done.

As stated, this program is aimed at those refusing to do any work whatsoever. Your defensible space is only as good as your neighbors. At the risk of affecting relations with our more strident supporters, enforcement is only recommended on those not caring about the fire safety in the communities we live and serve.

I know this program can be improved and your input is always welcome. We can be contacted at http://www.ntfire.net or you can call my office directly at 530-583-6911.

and#8212; Duane Whitelaw is chief of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District.