[Marin County] Opinion: Dick Spotswood: Marin officials should make 2019 the ‘Year of Fire Safety’

Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report on the wildfire danger.

New Year’s Day marks the time for Marin’s Board of Supervisors, its 11 city councils and the county’s plethora of special purpose districts to set their top priorities for 2019.

It’s a full list that necessarily includes wildland fire prevention, emergency evacuation, mitigating traffic congestion, public employee pension reform, chronic homelessness, raising our shoreline infrastructure to withstand climate change-induced rising seas, and dealing with regional agencies determined to force urbanization on the Bay Area’s small- and medium-sized towns.

Given the images fixed in our minds of the utter destruction of the Butte County town of Paradise and the devastation suffered by our neighbors in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties, wildland fire prevention needs to be 2019’s job one for Marin’s elected officials. Each needs to get more involved and designate wildland fire prevention their personal priority by making 2019 Marin’s “Year of Fire Safety.”

The fatefully titled Marin County Civil Grand Jury report on wildfire danger — “When, Not If” — says it all. Public safety is the fundamental purpose of local government. It’s criminal negligence for public officials to pass the buck. Performing the proper level of fire prevention isn’t cheap but it’s far less expensive that what it’ll cost the people of Paradise to rebuild their community.

The first step should be dramatic. Marin’s Board of Supervisors and Marin’s 11 municipalities need to make defensible space requirements around homes mandatory. State law already gives them authority to act. Now they should bite the bullet and levy fines against noncomplying owners by hiring contractors to trim trees and clear flammable brush, and then if they won’t or can’t afford to pay, lien the affected property if necessary.

Taking this decisive action would be acknowledgement by the county and each city that they “get it” — that the greatest threat to life and property in Marin is wildland fire.

Defensible spaces are the first line of defense. Some of us stick our heads in the sand by saying our wildlands and urban interface neighborhoods are so overgrown that any action is hopeless. Sure, when a firestorm on a windy day gets out of control, all residents can do is immediately evacuate. The reality is that most big fires start small. The key is not letting them become big. Mandating defensible spaces around homes is the foundation for neighborhoods to become as fire safe as possible.

If our elected officials don’t get in gear and make fire safety and emergency evacuation their top priorities, there’s an opportunity to replace them in a year. Three incumbent county supervisors are up for re-election in March 2020 including Southern Marin’s Kate Sears, West Marin’s Dennis Rodoni and the Ross Valley/West San Rafael area’s Katie Rice.

Of the three, only Rice has gotten herself deeply involved in fire-safe issues.

So far, Sears, who represents the Mill Valley, Sausalito, Tam Valley, Strawberry, Belvedere and Tiburon-based 3rd District, has failed to take any leadership role on fire safety even within her vulnerable district. She has nine months before filing for her seat opens to do something of significance to make her district safer. The ideal route for Sears to make herself fire safety-relevant is to introduce an ordinance making a defensible spaces requirement mandatory countywide.

Sears has two options. She can step up to the plate and finally get interested in a topic which is a life-or-death concern for 3rd District residents. If she pursues other priorities, her next election presents a golden opportunity for qualified candidates to challenge the two-term incumbent by making fire safety their No. 1 campaign issue.

Ditto for council members, city managers and water district directors. If they make their best efforts, it’ll be an action they and their constituents will never regret.

December 29, 2018

Marin Independent Journal

By Dick Spotswood

County: