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Rain fueled weed growth has Lathrop firefighters on edge
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April showers might bring May flowers, but they also bring something else that keeps Lathrop-Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely on edge.
While the formal arrival of constant spring warmth has yet to show up this year, stretches of warm weather coupled with early spring storms has already created conditions that have local fire officials like Neely encouraging residents to use the sunshine to make sure that they’re protecting their home by cutting back and removing dangerous fire fuels.
And Neely’s district hasn’t wasted any time in getting started on kicking its annual weed abatement program into gear – currently sending fire crews to inspect every parcel in the district to make sure that home and property owners are compliant with the existing ordinances in place.
“It’s definitely something that we want people to start thinking about right now,” said Neely, who noted that crews began the inspection portion of the program last week. “The whole idea is to eliminate threats early so that we don’t see the worst-case scenario, and this is something that we’ll be paying close attention to all through the summer.”
While last winter’s record rainfall brought about an abundance of grasses – and therefore, fuel for fires – the concentrated rain over the course of the last month, when coupled with the warmer spring temperatures, create the perfect conditions for fast-growing weeds and grasses that can wreak havoc on a home if a fire were to break out, Neely said.
Given the right conditions, embers from grass fires can rise up in the eaves of a home, Neely said, and start an attic fire that can threaten the integrity of the roof and the structure itself – a situation that he feels can be prevented with simple yard maintenance and a routine of keeping weeds below six-inches in height and not allowing them to concentrate in certain areas.
But even the mandated height of the weeds, Neely said, can be misleading as compliance based on the ordinance still doesn’t’ necessarily mean fire safety. Firefighters have the discretion to determine whether a yard is a fire hazard to prevent catastrophe from striking.
“We’re out looking and if we do end up issuing citations during this round people will have 14 days to comply and have us come back out and inspect to see if the dangerous conditions were addressed.
“It’s more of a reminder so that we can prevent something much worse later on in the summer, and we’re wanting to make sure that people are taking care of the things that they need to now so that when it’s bone dry there won’t be anything for them to have to worry about.”
Rural homes outside of Lathrop’s city limits will also be inspected in accordance with the County of San Joaquin’s weed abatement ordinance, and the recommendations from the department will vary on rural parcels depending on the size of the property, and how far away the weeds are from occupied dwellings. Neely said that some larger parcels will have the ability to install fire breaks just as long as the space around the home is cleared of weeds and debris. He noted those guidelines are only in place for pieces of property 10-acres and larger.
While citations aren’t uncommon for homeowners once the inspections begin, Neely said that for the most part residents are good about cleaning up any issues before it reaches the point where fines, levies and liens have to be imposed.
“For the most part when people find out that they have weeds that are in violation they’re good about cleaning them up and calling us to come back out,” Neely said. “Even in situations when that doesn’t happen, we’ve found that there’s almost always a circumstance – like the house was just sold and the new owners haven’t moved in yet, or something like that.
“It’s about protecting people, and Lathrop residents have been good about doing what they need to do in order to stay safe. We hope that everybody will pay attention to the ordinance this year and get a jump on taking care of what they need to.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.