Reg. 38 to address wildfire hazard vegetation

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

With the passage of the first reading of Reg. 38, Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Program, Holiday Island Fire Chief Jack Deaton is set to take the voluntary FireWise program a step further: the regulation will force property owners to clear their lots of fire danger vegetation or face paying for the district to do it and a possible lien on their property.

Reg. #38 was first presented to the Board of Commissioners for discussion at its June 16 work session.

It falls under one of District Manager Kevin Crosson's 2008 goals and objectives.

It targets hazardous vegetation standing or piled on developed or undeveloped lots.

Affected property owners will be sent, by certified mail or hand delivery, a notice of violation if their lots present a hazard.

They then have 30 days to take action, which can include burning, brush removal and thinning trees.

If the property owner fails to take action, the district will do so and bill the property owner for the work. An assessment lien will be placed on the property if they fail to pay the bill.

(Editor's note: See this story on our Web site,, for the full text of the regulation).

Deaton said the cost for such removal could run anywhere from $250 to $2,000, depending on the lot, but those are only ballpark figures.

He said the two major problems that spurred writing the regulation are property owners who have cleared their lots, but their neighbors have not, and the neighbors' brush piles constitute a fire danger to those who have tried to make their lots and homes fire-safe.

The other problem is those property owners who have cut down piles of brush and left them to dry out.

"We have one case like that where, if it catches, it will burn up the whole hillside," he said.

While the regulation may seem harsh, Deaton said there are several good reasons to be proactive in reducing wildfire hazard, some of them of benefit to property owners themselves.

Holiday Island has many old trees that have not seen a wildfire in generations. The upsloping terrain and several areas of southwest exposure, such as those along Holiday Island Drive, constitute a hazard.

Deaton said wildfires in California and Florida over the last several years have destroyed countless homes. The nationwide FireWise program, for which Holiday Island has won local and national awards, was started to mitigate wildfire danger.

"Insurance companies are going to start requiring people to make their houses FireWise," he said.

Not only are wildland fires a danger to homes but to the volunteer firefighters called out to fight them. A wildfire spreads very rapidly, can endanger several homes at once and can cut off escape routes for people and animals.

FireWise's suggested mitigation methods include "carefully landscaping around residential structures, such as thinning trees and brush and choosing fire-resistant plants; selecting ignition-resistant building materials; positioning structures away from slopes; and working with firefighters and other fire management teams to develop emergency plans."

Deaton said he is aware a large number of property owners are non-residents. There are things they can do to clean up their lots, and the fire department can help to some extent. He is more than willing to work with property owners to come up with a plan to make their properties safer.

The fire department also has a chipper that can be scheduled to chip brush and trees up to two inches in diameter. Property owners are asked to bring it to the front of their lot. They can keep the chippings or the department will haul them away.

At the discussion on June 23, Commissioner Bill Branum said, "I've been talking to people, and some are afraid we're going to start clearcutting Holiday Island."

"We have no intentions of clearcutting," Deaton said. "If people want to plant trees in open areas, that's all right."

Property owner David Blackford helped Deaton write the FireWise program for Holiday Island, which was later used by the state for its program. He was quick to praise Deaton for all he has done for the community, and expressed some concerns about this regulation.

"When I joined (the FireWise program) I thought it was going to be voluntary and was concerned it was going to be mandatory. Now it has come full circle toward being mandatory."

He said he did not want to see a climate of "neighbor against neighbor" and was concerned about the district overstepping the limits of its authority to enforce such a regulation.

He also commented that wildlife are an important part of Holiday Island, and sometimes brush piles are established for them as habitat.

"I'm going to be the one to bring it to property owners' attention," Deaton said. "It won't be neighbor against neighbor."

He said he has been working on the problem for more than a year and has had great success and cooperation so far. The process will be ongoing over several years. He has five lots he is working on right now that are of concern.

It takes the passage of two readings to put a regulation into effect. The board is scheduled to have a second reading of this regulation at its July 28 business meeting.

Property owners are invited to give their input by attending the meeting or calling Chief Deaton at (479) 253-8397 or District Manager Kevin Crosson at 253-9700.

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