New fire rules for hillside residents in conflict with water regs

Catherine McIntosh and Charles Tuggle are seen in the back yard of the home they share in the Padua Hills area of Claremont. During their annual fire inspection in May, the couple learned about upcoming rules that will require the removal of flammable material within five feet of any structure in a high fire zone. COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff.

by Steven Felschundneff |

Back in May, Padua Hills residents Catherine McIntosh and Charles Tuggle received a bit of a shock when a local fire captain told them that one day soon anything flammable within five feet of their home would have to be removed.

The occasion was the annual fire inspection, to which hillside residents have become accustomed, complete with a letter reminding them that all brush, fallen leaves and other detritus must be removed from their properties before the beginning of fire season.

But the captain was not talking about brush as he pointed to a gate attached to the front of the home on Via Padova, as he informed them that under new rules, they would have to replace it with one made of a non-flammable material such as iron.

“We were standing out here and he pointed to this bamboo gate that is right up to the house and he said, “Next year this will have to go,’” McIntosh said.

Replacing the gate is more than just a potentially expensive hassle, because it was built by McIntosh’s father, noted ceramicist Harrison McIntosh, who died in 2016 at the age of 101. The elder McIntosh created much of the garden around the Fred McDowell-designed mid-century modern home. And now, McIntosh and her husband Tuggle are faced with the possibility of altering the garden forever.

The fire captain was most likely referring to California Assembly Bill 3074, which among other regulations, establishes strict rules for the removal of flammable material within five feet of any structure located in a very high fire hazard severity area.

The law will be phased in, with new construction required to comply by January 1, 2023, and existing homes the following year, according to John Morgan, deputy chief for wildfire prevention with Cal Fire.

The core issue is creating “defensible space” around homes in high fire areas to both increase the likelihood the structure won’t burn and to make it safer for firefighters to battle a blaze. The defensible space is divided into zones, with a higher degree of fuel reduction required the closer one gets to a structure. Zone 1, which is up to 30 feet, or to the property line, includes clearing brush, keeping trees trimmed, relocating woodpiles, removing plants near windows, and creating space between trees and shrubs that could catch fire. Zone 2 extends out 100 feet and generally requires brush clearance and the maintenance of trees and bushes.

Under current law, residents in these high fire areas are required to comply with the rules in zones one and two and will undergo inspections each year to ensure compliance. The new law will create a “Zone 0” which extends five feet from the home and is a critical area for saving structures.

The job of hammering out the exact regulations is the responsibility of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is still working on the rules. However, the board published a draft version earlier this month that provides some insight into what residents in high fire zones can expect.

“Fuels in Zone 0 shall be spaced and maintained so as to reduce the likelihood of structure ignition from a wildfire burning under average weather conditions by reducing the potential for direct ignition of the structure from flame contact, by embers that accumulate at the base of a wall, and/or indirect ignition when embers ignite vegetation, vegetative debris or other combustible materials near the structure that result in either radiant heat and/or direct flame exposure to the structure,” read the draft text.

The draft contains some rules which are just common sense for anyone living in the hillsides, including removing dead or dying plants, trees and branches, as well as eliminating leaves and needles within the five-foot radius and from the roof, including rain gutters.

In addition, the draft includes several new restrictions, including replacing woodchips, bark, or combustible mulch with non-flammable materials; removing planting containers mounted below windows, regardless of construction material; replacing combustible gates or fences; and relocating combustible non-vegetative decorative items.

“The ember-resistant zone or first five feet around a structure and its attached decking is critical because embers fall into that area and start smoldering in the dead and dying vegetation,” Morgan said. “Many times, those small smoldering fires go unnoticed and end up contributing to the loss of structures in neighborhoods during a wild land fire event.”

For McIntosh and Tuggle, the frustration lies not in complying with the new rules, which they plan to do as soon as the details are known, but with what they see as conflicting requirements to both reduce water and electricity consumption as well.

McIntosh described the canopy of trees surrounding the home as part of the design to keep the house naturally cool, so they only use air conditioning on the hottest days. The more those trees are cut back, the greater the increase in their demand for electricity.

Like all customers of Golden State Water, they have been asked to cut consumption by 20% due to the ongoing drought. But at the same time fire officials are encouraging them to keep plantings green near the home to protect against fire.

“The basic situation you have is what’s good to keep the house cool without using a lot of power is bad for fire. And what is good to reduce water usage is bad for fire,” McIntosh said.

She has made a considerable effort to keep the ivy around the house healthy for its fire resistance, but fears water restrictions will force her to dig it out.

“When green landscaping cannot be achieved due to water restrictions, be sure to remove all dead or dying material from Zone 1,” according to a Cal Fire recommendation for periods of drought.

However, that rule may have another unintended consequence. According to Tuggle, those plants, or more specifically their roots, help to secure the fragile hillside behind the home which protects the property for landslides. He cited sumac, which is native to the area and is highly flammable but also does a good job of holding the hillside together. The fire inspector asked for it to be removed, but when presented with the evidence that it helps to prevent slides, agreed it could stay as long as it is severely pruned.

“Point is, you got these plants and if you start ripping them out you could have some slides. That trade off I don’t think is considered in these inspections,” he said.

Deputy fire chief Morgan said he anticipates the fire board will have more details about Zone 0 restrictions when it meets in September, and there will be an informational campaign for affected areas before the 2024 deadline to comply.

“Within that year I am sure you will see a lot of educational materials come out and a lot of social media [posts] on this subject,” he said.

COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff

1 Comment


    Unintended consequences flourish in today’s mandates and regulations. I say protect your home as best you can and petition a variance with the water restrictions.

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