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Purpose of Vegetation Management Standards
Along with California's growth of population and expanding development, urban housing has intermixed with wildland areas. California communities have experienced devastating fire loss because of the severity of fires which occur in this intermix area. The risk of conflagration in the intermix is increased further by homeowners who create uncontrolled landscaping of native and non-native plants on their properties. Thousands of homes are threatened by fire every year in California largely because of this heavy vegetation fuel load very near structures.

The City of El Cerrito contains wildland intermix areas which increase the community's risk of loss from devastating fire. These areas have been identified by the California Department of Forestry (CDF) and the El Cerrito Fire Department as Very High Fire Hazard Severity (VHFHS) zones. As specified by State law (AB 337), property owners within these zones must take special precautions with their property, including vegetation management, to reduce the risk of fire.

The buildup of unmanaged vegetation, whether native or non-native, steep hillsides with canyons and draws, and periods of extremely hot, dry weather all combine to create in El Cerrito the potential for catastrophic fire behavior such as occurred in the Oakland/ Berkeley Hills Fire of October 1991. Catastrophic fires can destroy large numbers of homes, threaten public safety and severely damage the natural areas which contribute to our high quality of living.

A key goal of local community fire protection planning is to reduce the level of fire hazards in El Cerrito's wildland intermix areas, designated as VHFHS zones. While it is not possible to eliminate all threats of catastrophic wildfire, fire hazards can be reduced to acceptable levels and still allow a "green" El Cerrito.

Vegetation management planning in the VHFHS zone focuses on areas where fire poses the greatest risk to life and property. There are three specific goals of the program:
  1. Keep all fires small. Small fires generally are cooler than large fires and are more easily extinguished.
  2. Limit the speed with which any fire will grow. Fires need fuel to burn; if fuel is available, fires will continue to grow rapidly. Fuel must be limited or made unavailable to spreading fire. 
  3. Make it more difficult for fires to ignite and spread. Small fires can ignite progressively larger fuels. Small fuels are like kindling and are easily ignited. Reducing kindling fuels, and separating kindling fuels from larger fuels reduces sources for ignition and the potential for fire spread.
Fires will continue to be a part of California urban living. By implementing vegetation management standards, El Cerrito residents can significantly reduce the potential that a small fire will grow into a catastrophic event involving one or more structures. The primary method of stopping fire spread is by increasing separation distances between combustible fuels. An important component of reducing the community's fire risk requires vegetation management to be practiced by property owners.

Fire Safe Vegetation Management Concepts
There are three basic methods employed to manage vegetation fuels: firebreaks, fuel breaks and ornamental landscaping. A firebreak eliminates all flammable vegetation and combustible growth. Appropriate ornamental landscaping is acceptable in this area. A fuel break reduces the fuel mass of flammable vegetation and combustible growth, thereby limiting the intensity of fire and slowing its rate of spread. Ornamental landscaping provides a yard or garden with decorative fire resistive plants that are irrigated, maintained and arranged to be aesthetically pleasing, functionally useful and enhance fire safety. Refer to the definitions listed for these terms.

Within VHFHS zones, structures are to be protected from wildfire by creating firebreaks immediately surrounding structures and fuel breaks further out from structures. Within 30 feet of a structure a firebreak should be created which contains well-irrigated, maintained and appropriately spaced ornamental landscaping with fire resistant plants. All flammable vegetation and combustible growth in this area immediately surrounding a structure should be eliminated. This creates a safety margin of defensible space so that wildfire can be stopped before it reaches a structure.

A fuel break should be created from 30 feet to 100 feet from structures located within the VHFHS zones. The heightened risk of wildfire within the VHFHS zones makes it necessary to provide an added safety margin of defensible space for all structures and a fuel break will provide this extra protection. Fuel breaks are meant to reduce fire hazardous vegetation and maintain it to specified heights and arrangements, limiting fire intensity and impeding fire spread. The purpose of the fuel break is to deny any hot fire entering it sufficient fuel to sustain fire intensity and speed. By the time it reaches the firebreak area containing ornamental landscaping nearer the structure, the now low-intensity fire should be stopped easily by the firebreak surrounding the structure.

Ornamental landscaping with fire resistant plants is encouraged as a long term approach to maintain yard and garden vegetation in a fire safe manner. Landscaping with healthy, appropriately irrigated plants and ground cover provides a permanent reduction of the fire hazard adjacent to structures when such landscaping is maintained at regular intervals. Ornamental landscaping can enhance a firebreak by inhibiting the growth of weeds, grass, brush and similar fire hazardous vegetation. A list of fire resistant and highly flammable plants is available from the Fire Department.


Process
No person shall be prosecuted criminally under the provisions of Section 8.30.040 of the El Cerrito Municipal Code until that person has received written notice of how that property violates these standards and until that person has had the reasonable opportunity to meet with City staff concerning the violation. Civil enforcement of these guidelines as provided for in Section 8.30.050 will be through procedures set forth in Chapter 8.34 or Chapter 16.26 of the El Cerrito Municipal Code. Civil procedures for fire hazard abatement include providing the property owner with (1) written notice on how the property violates these guidelines, (2) reasonable opportunity to meet with City staff to discuss this matter and (3) opportunity to be heard before the City Council.


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