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Prescribed burns on the horizon; fire depts not on the hook for costly fines

A green tower with scaffolds, used for fighting fires.
Ted Williams
The firefighting training tower in Fort Bragg.

The Board of Supervisors heard items about fire at this week's meeting.

Mendocino Unit Cal Fire Chief Brandon Gunn told the Board of Supervisors this week that Cal Fire is embracing a rigorous program of prescribed burns. And the Board voted unanimously to waive the penalty fees for fire departments in Hopland and Fort Bragg, which put up firefighting training towers without permits.

Chief Gunn told the board about a recent Senate Bill (1101) that “describes fire as essential as rain in this environment. California and its Mediterranean climate is one of the most naturally fire prone landscapes on Earth. I want to develop the grassroots culture of burning in Mendocino County, where everyone comes together for the safety of our communities. This will take the citizens, county, tribal, state, and federal cooperators all coming together to burn on our terms, with sufficient resources at scene and under the fuel and weather conditions of our choosing, to produce low intensity fire that is good for our environment.”

Gunn recalled that after a burn last year, vineyard owners expressed concern about smoke taint fouling their grapes. “And then we found out afterward that there was absolutely no impact on the grapes,” he reported, adding that the Hopland Research and Extension Center is researching the science of smoke taint. Gunn finds that “very exciting research for California, because as we start to reintroduce fire back onto the landscape, that's going to be a major concern in counties like Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, where you have a lot of grapes, but you also have a lot of communities in those areas that you need to protect. I'd rather burn that brush and the fuel around those communities during the right time under our conditions, than have a fire explode when you have 40 mile an hour winds and you really risk losing those communities.”

Gunn added that he’s enthusiastic about expanding the practice of burning the grass in highway medians. He’s currently focused on burning the median along the stretch of Highway 101 between Willits and Redwood Valley. He believes this will dramatically improve the chances of halting a fire when it hits the road, as well as prevent fires started by sparks flying off malfunctioning vehicles. Depending on the availability of resources, he told the board, he wants to burn the Ridgewood Grade annually, “and then we will look down the road to try to extend this project throughout the county.”

In another fire-related item, Supervisors Dan Gjerde and Ted Williams asked the board to waive thousands of dollars in penalty fees the Fort Bragg fire department had incurred for failing to get permits to erect a training tower where firefighters can practice putting out structure fires. Hopland Fire Department had also been fined for placing its tower in a floodplain without permits its chief said he didn’t know they needed.

The towers were purchased with settlement monies from PG&E after the Redwood Complex Fire. Williams said that in Fort Bragg, the fire department took on the task of managing the installation of the tower, including finding a landowner who would house it on their property.

“But then we got notified that Code Enforcement had flagged it as a code violation,” he explained, conceding that, “Code Enforcement is probably right. I think our staff is following the book. They came to the right conclusion, but it's not what the board intended when we funded the project. This was a county project. We asked Fort Bragg to help. They found a generous landowner. We didn't mean to incur fines on the order of $8,000.”

Fort Bragg Fire Chief Steve Orsi threw himself on the supervisors’ mercy, after telling them how essential the structure is for training new firefighters. “We have quite a few new people in our department,” he said. One night, “We did a classroom training on ventilation...We can sit in the classroom and we can watch videos and we could explain to all these new kids what happens during a fire when you put a hole in the roof and you direct the fire out and all that. And they get it, I guess but it's just not the same” as taking them to a live fire on the training prop, which he did a few days after the classroom session. “That’s going to stick with them forever,” he concluded. “I get it…it obviously needed a permit, but at the time, we were really under the impression that we didn’t. We were wrong, and we found out.”

Gjerde moved to waive the fines and code enforcement cost recovery fees, but not to exempt the fire departments from requirements to get permits. The motion passed unanimously.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.