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Proponents of Measure A, which dissolved the fire department, said having county fire crews oversee firefighting operations would increase services and lower taxes. Courtesy photo
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New guidelines for wildfire protection

RANCHO SANTA FE — With loose vegetation and weeds raising concerns about fire hazards, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District is urging residents to stay on top of a newly tweaked set of defensible space guidelines.

Defensible spaces around a home help prevent or ward off flames in an area particularly prone to sudden wildfires. When it comes to maintaining these spaces, the district is particularly weary of trees that have been dying off and subsequently becoming fuel sources.

“We have our hands full this year when it comes to vegetation management,” District Fire Prevention Specialist and Forester Conor Lenehan said at an Aug. 8 Rancho Santa Fe Association board meeting. “Eucalyptus trees are a big concern for us this year … the trees are looking as bad as I’ve ever seen them.”

The Rancho Santa Fe Association is responsible for taking care of dead trees and other vegetation in the county right-of-way through the Community Services District, according to Caitlin Kreutz, the association’s Parks & Recreation assistant manager.

But because 95% of the area’s forest is on private property, there’s only so much the association can do to prevent fire hazards. The district is urging residents to mind their property — cutting down dead trees and stray palm fronds, and keeping grasses and weeds below 6 inches in height, for example.

At the meeting, Kreutz advised that homeowners get rid of their red gum eucalyptus trees, which have become a favorite snack of the lerp psyllid insect. The pest’s defoliation of the trees can cause them to weaken and eventually die, becoming fuel for fire.

“It could take 10 years for the tree to die, but it’s still a very big risk in terms of fire because it still has all the combustible oils,” she said, adding that homeowners should opt for a different species of eucalyptus.

But for healthy trees, Lenehan said it’s better to thin out vegetation, and avoid a dense understory — which might cause fire to spread through a tree.

“If the fire is on the ground it’s a lot easier for us to manage than when it’s up in the air,” he said.

During his presentation, Lenehan outlined the district-enforced guidelines for different areas depending on their distance from the property in question.

He said the district is currently in the process of changing its defensible space requirements. They currently are guided by two zones — the first 50 feet from the perimeter of a home and the following 50 feet. Now they are adopting a National Fire Protection Association standard of three zones: the first 5 feet, the 5-to-50-foot range, and the 50-to-100-foot range.

Within a 5-foot distance of the home, residents must keep the space “ignition resistant” by removing all combustible vegetation, clearing rain gutters and roofs of combustible debris, and avoiding mulch within the 5-foot-wide stretch — a new item the district will start enforcing in January.

Within 5-to-50 feet, the district is requiring that homeowners remove any dead vegetation, limit planting to drought-tolerant and fire-resistive vegetation, trim back tree branches at least 10 feet from rooftops, and keep propane tanks a minimum of ten feet away from structures, vegetation and combustible materials.

Lenehan urged that trash cans should be placed at a minimum of 10 feet away from homes, mentioning that houses have been lost because of trash cans catching fire up against a house.

Further from the home, within the 50-to-100-foot range, the district requires homeowners to also remove any dead vegetation, and thin out native vegetation “by 50% or more,” according to Lenehan’s presentation.

Lenehan also stressed the importance of residents having an evacuation plan.

“Wildfires can strike at any day now, and it’s important to have that kind of action plan ready to go,” he said.