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Dying lawns may fuel fire catastrophe

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POSTED April 30, 2014 1:07 a.m.

The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District has the usual grass fire culprits to deal with this summer. 

• The dry grass along I-5 and the Highway 120 Bypass – especially in the sections that Caltrans workers can’t knock down because the banks are too steep.

• Rural properties with dense underbrush and overgrown weeds.

• Foreclosed homes that haven’t been tended to for months. 

But Fire Chief Gene Neely also foresees another problem that could end up posing a significant fire hazard – regular homeowners that are letting their lawns die because they’re trying to do the right thing and conserve water.

Now that Governor Jerry Brown has stepped in and made it illegal for homeowners associations to dock those under their authority for letting lawns brown during what experts predict will be the driest summer that California has seen in years, Neely said he expects to see that trend continue. 

While it seems like a good idea on the surface, Neely said that the same logic that applies with dry grass along the highway will apply double in residential areas. An errant cigarette or match or a rock picked up by a lawnmower could provide the source for what would become a fast-spreading fire fanned by wind that could light-up a fence and run straight up to a home before the property owner has a chance to get the hose unrolled. 

“A few embers up on top of a shake roof is all that it would take,” he said. “We call a situation like that with a lawn a ‘trailer’ because it provides the route for the fire to spread on to something else. It can potentially go from here to there very fast, and we won’t know until the season is over and we look at the data whether it was truly an issue. 

“Anytime there are drought conditions the fire danger definitely increases.”

Unlike Manteca which has a city-wide weed abatement program that is carried out by the fire department and includes inspections of every home in the city, Lathrop’s system is based on a compliant-only basis – it’ll take the phone call of a neighbor to the city’s code enforcement division before the local government can step in and force the necessary changes. 

Manteca’s weed abatement inspections start Thursday.

The district also has to deal with a varied range of home types that they need to inspect – densely-packed single-family homes within the city limits and sprawling ranch style homes out in the rural areas. According to Neely, the same standard that the State of California recommends in most mountain towns – 100-feet of defensible space – is a good rule of thumb for rural property owners that want to make sure that they aren’t creating conditions that could exacerbate a fire if it were to start. 

Anything within that 100-foot radius – like a woodpile – could potentially threaten the home by sending flames up under an eave or onto into an attic where it can quickly spread throughout the house. 

“When you have things like that – a woodpile and such – you’re talking about that ‘trailer’ effect. But it also provides a ladder for the fire and that’s not something that you want to do,” he said. “That’ll provide for higher flames and you always want to look out for an issue like that. 100-feet is definitely what’s recommended.”

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