Kent Rees: Did you know? It’s the law!
November 25, 2018
Last summer, Gov. Brown toured burned out neighborhoods in the Redding area. Talking about fire prevention, he said that "government couldn't do it all."
He's right! There's an element of personal responsibility that can't be ignored.
That "personal responsibility" is summed up in a law that's been on the books since 2005. It's Public Resources Code Section 4291. It states that a person who "owns" or "controls" a "building or structure" must "maintain defensible space of 100 feet from each side and from the front and rear of the structure, but not beyond the property line …" Yes, it's a California State law enforceable by our fire officials.
We meet people who don't know this as a "law," who think defensible space is a "good idea" or some kind of "recommendation." Or maybe it's just a thoughtful "guideline." Are you one of those people?
The confusion is understandable when the efforts to get the word out about 4291 seem so disorganized. We often hear the words "defensible space" but it's rarely cited as a law. Often, the rationale is missing or there isn't advice on how to get compliance. Strangely, even our "Fire Season Guide" omits mention of defensible space as a law. The local Firewise communities are encouraging everyone to shine a stronger light on this lapse, and we need to thank our county leaders for responding by including 4291 information in the recent property tax bills. None of us, including new residents, should have to wait around to find out about this law when it could be too late to make a difference.
The logic behind 4291 is sound. The point is that, in most cases, we don't have to be sitting ducks, powerless to improve our chances in a wildfire. We can take matters into our own hands by cleaning up, clearing away deadfall, and rooting out those fire footholds on our properties that can become the source of a new fire. Keep in mind one fact: half the houses that burn in wildfires are not lost to the front of the fire, but to the flying embers that blow off the main fire event. In other words, a big fire might be stopped well before reaching your property, but your place could still burn if vulnerable to these embers. Creating defensible space is your ace up the sleeve in saving your home.
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Under California's seat belt law, people buckled up in increasingly large numbers. Even though the fines were small, drivers started to recognize that the belts saved lives. Why? People were exposed to a campaign of public service messages that convinced everyone that seat belts made sense. All of us have seen the "Click It or Ticket" signs on our highways. Do you know anyone who still refuses to buckle up? The message is that if we want people to follow the law, we need to inform them, and we can do a much better job with 4291. Good people will step up and do the right thing so long as they have the facts.
Eighty percent of the houses lost in the 49er Fire did not have the required defensible space. We should have learned something from that. In our "new normal" of more dangerous "megafires," there should be no room for incomplete information that puts people in danger. Let's start to "take personal responsibility" in the same way we have with seat belts.
I'm urging all those who work on fire prevention, volunteers and paid professionals alike, to finally give PRC 4291 full disclosure and robust advertising. With lives literally at stake, there should be no holding back. All of us need to take stock of our own properties and to accept that we can actually do something to improve our risks. If we all followed 4291, it might be the reason our houses are still standing after being pelted with hot embers.
The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County has been working for years to get out the whole story about PRC 4291 and what defensible space law means in our heavily wooded area. The Council provides information and resources. If you are in doubt about what meets the letter of the law on your property, you can contact the Council and have a trained volunteer made a free home visit to help you with fire safety ideas. Check online at AreYouFireSafe.com and/or call the office at 530-272-1122.
Kent Rees is the founding chair the Nevada County Coalition of Firewise Communities. He lives in Nevada City.