Newcastle fire ordinance forbids excessive overgrowth

Undeveloped properties to be cleared within 100 feet of neighboring structures
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With summer dry spells around the corner, a new ordinance will require Newcastle property owners to keep their lawns and fields in check.

The Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors adopted a hazardous vegetation abatement policy at its meeting on Thursday, the latest of several districts in the county to do so. Board President Dave Ward said the ordinance will ask landowners to keep undeveloped properties at least somewhat manicured within 100 feet of a neighbor’s standing structure, thereby preventing overgrown vegetation from creating a path of fuel by which a fire might spread to or from a neighbor’s property.

“It allows everyone with unimproved parcels (properties without a standing structure) to have 100 feet of defensible space. Let’s say someone bought five acres next to you, and they didn’t do anything with it, they just let it grow … They would have to allow you, or they would have to do it, to mow that 100 feet from your property out into theirs to give that defensible space,” he said. “They’ve used it in other districts, and they’ve seen a decrease in fires, structural damage and so on.”

The ordinance will go into effect after Ward meets with Fire Chief Jay Love on Monday to establish enforcement procedures.

“It’s not that we go out and look for these problems. It is a complaint-based thing,” Ward said. “In other words, if the neighbor calls in and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem here,’ then the fire chief will come down and look, and it’ll be solely his decision as to whether there is a problem or not. And there is an appeals process by the property owner whose job it would be to remove the vegetation.”

Placer County Director of Emergency Services Rui Cunha said over the past five years, fire departments in North Tahoe, North Star, Squaw Valley, Penryn, Loomis and Foresthill instituted the policy with little problem.

Ward said two people shared concerns about the ordinance during public comment, but most others seemed to agree it could be helpful.

“‘What if I have a neighbor that I don’t get along with? He could turn me in for something.’ That was the main concern,” he said. “It was pointed out by Rui, there is an appeals process. It isn’t up to the neighbor, it’s up to the fire chief, and then ultimately the appeals process.”

Cunha explained the need for such a policy with an example of a neighborhood by Dry Creek Road destroyed in a fire in 2009.

“That 40-acre parcel was pretty significantly overgrown, and the 49 Fire burned through that area, burned into that open field which was significantly overgrown, and ultimately a lot of energy along with some winds resulted in … 62 homes being burned in about four hours’ time. Since we’ve put the ordinance in place, the property owner who owns that 40-acre parcel has worked very closely with that community to always have a fuel break adjacent to those property owners’ homes,” he said. “With a fuel break, you just don’t have the same energy, so there’s a higher probability that firefighters can get in and actually defend homes.”

In other business, Ward said the board would begin advertising for bids on the remaining repair work to the fire station starting Tuesday, at which time the bid specs will be available at the station. Most of the work will involve removing and repairing dry rot above the south side door, then re-patching it with stucco.

“It’s going to advertise for a day, we’ll do a station walk-through with contractors and engineers on Feb. 25, and bids will close on March 1, and the contract will be awarded on March 14,” he said.

The board also declared the firefighters’ former residence, the camper trailer in the parking lot, surplus property to be sold on eBay or Craigslist as soon as possible. Ward said firefighters who will be happy to be rid of the trailer offered, only half-jokingly, to burn it as a training exercise.